When we discuss elections in well-established democracies, the question is generally about who will win. For Afghanistan’s upcoming presidential and provincial balloting set for April 5, the question most people seem to be asking is: will the country survive this vote? In a two-part series today and tomorrow, USIP Director of Afghanistan and Central Asia Programs Scott Smith reflects on the long road toward this monumental transition and the scenarios that could emerge from the impending vote.

Afghan security forces block a street leading to the election commission. Insurgents attacked the Independent Election Commission offices, another in a series of strikes on foreign targets & the commission running the vote. Photo: NYT/ Bryan Denton
Afghan security forces block a street leading to the election commission. Insurgents attacked the Independent Election Commission offices, another in a series of strikes on foreign targets & the commission running the vote. Photo: NYT/ Bryan Denton

Afghans are understandably anxious about their future. Some of the most familiar features of their lives over the past 12 years will abruptly change in 2014: most, if not all, international forces will withdraw; the highly visible international presence will shrink; and, above all, Hamid Karzai, unquestionably the dominant figure of Afghan politics since 2001, is likely to fade from the scene.

So 2014 represents a sort of cliff of uncertainty. And yet, for the thousands of people involved in Afghanistan and beyond in making such momentous decisions over the years, few seem to have considered that potentially explosive collision of events.  Ever since the constitution was adopted in 2004, we have known that 2014 is a presidential election year, and since 2009 we have known that it will be the final year of Karzai’s mandate.

The “transition” plan was also scheduled, set at the Lisbon conference in 2010 by countries in the U.S.-led military coalition and the Afghan government. I have asked both Afghan and U.S. officials whether it was intended that these two momentous events should take place in the same year, when it was so easy to foresee the uncertainty they would cause. Not only has no one been able to give me an answer; it seems they never even asked the question.

The anxiety has, of course, been heightened by president Karzai’s unexpected refusal in November to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement that he had just finished negotiating with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. That raised the possibility of the so-called “zero option”, where there would be no international troops after 2014, a scenario that one year ago would have been unimaginable by most experts.

Added to this uncertainty over security and political prospects, there is a great deal of anxiety about the economy. Part of this is the clear declaration by the U.S. and its allies that if there are no troops, or fewer troops, the international financial commitment to Afghanistan will be greatly reduced as well. Karzai’s failure to sign  the BSA already has created a great deal of economic hedging behavior -- investments are being postponed, money is being moved out of Afghanistan, government revenue collection has fallen, and corruption continues to increase. And the currency, the Afghani, which remained remarkably steady for most of the last 10 years, has begun to fall against other currencies.

A final uncertainty concerns the possibility of a peace deal with the Taliban. Afghans are of course weary of war, and many accept that a negotiation with the Taliban needs to take place. But there are also fears about what this peace will cost, especially in terms of the gains made in the rights – and health – of women and girls, and in the advancement of civic and political rights more generally.

Vital Debates

However imperfect the application of these rights have been, they have allowed the emergence of political leaders whose legitimacy is not based on force, but on the fact that they represent often forward-looking views that otherwise would remain unexpressed due to fear.

There is a rational anxiety that certain vital debates that have begun to take place in Afghanistan—by Afghans and on Afghan terms—about the nature of Afghan political society, will no longer be able to take place. If that were the result of a peace agreement, I think it would be a very tragic peace indeed, and one that might not last long.

Amid these various transition processes, the upcoming election is the most important. Without a credible transfer of power, and a continuation of the constitutional order, it is hard to see how a successful security transition can be sustained, or how the economic hedging behavior can be reversed. It is even difficult to see how a negotiation with the armed opposition can be conducted without a clear, legitimate state structure.

In all this uncertainty, it’s hard to know whether to be optimistic or pessimistic. Afghanistan is facing a totally unprecedented situation; there are few historical guides to help us interpret it. Furthermore, much of the current analysis is distorted by a few unfortunate intellectual habits. Internationals tend to underestimate the capacity of Afghans to find solutions among themselves.. And Afghans tend to overestimate the powers of President Karzai, believing that nothing can happen in the country unless the president has arranged it.

Judgments also can be skewed because the process is moving quickly and throwing out new information every day since the campaign began eight weeks ago. So a number of wildly different outcomes now seem equally plausible.
One year ago, my position was that the minimum political function that these elections needed to play was to extend Afghanistan’s constitutional order – formally a democracy, but with periodic elections reinforcing an elite pact that essentially determines the outcome. Elections allow power-brokers to demonstrate their strength by gathering votes, and they use this demonstration to position themselves in the negotiation over how political power is distributed. The massive appointment powers of the president in Afghanistan’s constitution have meant that he acts as the chief arbitrator in a complex political negotiation whose terms are set by political heft demonstrated through electoral strength, with little concern for how those votes were gathered.

While this seems cynical, it means that powerbrokers have accepted the basic logic of elections as superior to that of civil war in deciding how to allocate power. The German general and military historian Carl von Clausewitz famously said that war was an expression of politics by other means. In Afghanistan, electoral politics are an expression of civil war by other means – undoubtedly a distinct improvement.

Tomorrow: The surprises of Afghanistan’s election season. This two-part series is adapted from a speech Smith gave in Oslo, Norway, on March 19 for Afghanistan Week, organized by the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO).

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