Obama putting Afghan elections at risk?

The Obama administration is putting the success of Afghanistan’s presidential election at risk with its policy of not getting too involved, according to an outside group.

If the elections are not successful or are postponed for any reason, it could jeopardize whether a bilateral security agreement with the U.S. will be signed that would allow the U.S. to maintain troops and bases in the country, say members of the Coalition for Afghan Democracy. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has indicated he is waiting for his successor to sign the agreement. 

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The coalition consists of former U.S. and Afghan officials and experts who are working with groups on the ground in Afghanistan to ensure the elections run smoothly. It is a non-profit mostly funded by board member and Afghan-American entrepreneur Hamed Wardak.

U.S. officials say they’re hesitant to get too involved in the political process or to have a visual presence on the ground during campaigning, since they want Afghans to take the lead on the elections, which will be the first time Afghans are voting without an incumbent. 

“The Afghans are in the lead. The 2009 elections had significant numbers of international observers, but this time, internationals will supplement an observation force composed almost entirely of Afghans,” said a State Department official on background.

Officials say there will be about 12,200 Afghan observers, versus about 150 international observers. 

Officials are also concerned about perceptions that were created during the 2009 elections, when U.S. Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke and the U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry actively campaigned against Karzai, and appeared with competitors campaigning for his seat. 

That involvement created deep mistrust between the U.S. and Afghan government that had never been overcome.

As a result, U.S. officials have been very cautious in appearing with any Afghan candidates this time. They’ve made sure Afghans have the lead in securing and monitoring the elections. 

But members of the Coalition say the stakes are high and that things would be improved with more U.S. action.

If elections fail, they say it could lead to a precipitous withdrawal of U.S. troops from the country.

That’s what happened in Iraq, though much of the U.S. and coalition equipment was driven into next-door Kuwait, where it remained for months. There is no similar “catcher’s mitt” — as military officials called it — for Afghanistan. 

The elections are due to take place on April 5. If necessary, run-off elections would take place by May 28, but could possibly occur later, since voting materials would need to be redistributed. 

Karzai’s successor would be sworn into office sometime around August, 30 days after final results are announced, leaving only four months before U.S. troops would either drawdown or prepare for an enduring presence there. 

Any disruption, postponement, fraudulent outcome, or violence could delay this process, both Coalition members and officials say. 

Given this, the U.S. could also be doing more to prepare candidates for the election’s outcome, such as accepting defeat if they lose, and not resorting to violence or other means, the Coalition says. 

According to Afghan constitutional law, if any candidate is killed during the first or second rounds of elections, the election will have to be redone entirely within two years. 

One candidate, Abdullah Abdullah has already survived multiple assassination attempts, including one earlier this week. It is not clear whether the attackers are the Taliban or political opponents.

“If the election is not credible, it could break out into warring factions,” said Kelsey Glover, spokeswoman for the Coalition.

The U.S. should also be doing more to teach the Afghans best practices and ensure there is no foul play, amid signs that Karzai is trying to engineer the election results, members of the coalition say. 

For example, Karzai has met personally with each of the 11 candidates who are seeking his favor, and there are claims that he appointed loyalists on the electoral complaints commission, which will handle discrepancies or issues. 

Members of the Coalition and other experts agree that the U.S. should not influence the political process, but are urging officials to do more logistically, such as providing more security and oversight at polling stations.

“There is uncertainty over what role the U.S. will play in security during the elections,” said Glover. “If the election doesn’t go well, we’re going to have a dwindling force in a destabilizing situation.” 

Officials say the United Nations is taking the lead for the international community on the ground, and that the U.S. is financially supporting at least 50 percent of the efforts, at about $100 million of assistance, officials say. 

“The Afghan election commission is quite competent and quite good. I think we’ve done a lot on the technical support side,” said Scott Smith, director of the United States Institute of Peace’s Afghanistan and Central Asia program, who works closely with U.S. officials. 

“I don’t think we’re too hands off,” Smith said. “An election can’t be parachuted in from outside, people have to own it, if it fails, it’s because Afghans didn’t embrace it.” 

“What kind of election is it if every polling station is guarded by a G.I.?” said Smith.