Afghan forces need support, preparation for upcoming election

Afghan forces need support, preparation for upcoming election
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Afghans will go to the polls Oct. 18 to elect a parliament and local officials for Afghanistan’s 398 districts. But they will vote for more than just officials. They will be voting for the future of Afghanistan; the country’s fate hangs in the balance. The current parliament’s term was to expire in June 2015, but has been extended repeatedly because of security concerns. When President Ashraf Ghani’s term expires next year, a presidential election will have to be held.

Meanwhile, Afghanistan’s now nearly 40-year war rages on. In 2018, we have witnessed deadly attacks against security forces, journalists and voting registration locations, perpetrated by the Taliban as well as the Islamic State-Khorasan Province (or, ISIL-KP). The international coalition’s Operation Resolute Support, with around 13,000 troops on a “train and assist” mission, is holding things together, but the going is tough. Holding things together through this election cycle, however, is the most important thing the 39-country coalition can do.

Elections often are assumed to be political conflict-mitigating events — the fundamental competitive process in democratic systems. But, despite thousands of lives sacrificed to the cause, hundreds of billions of dollars and patchy progress, Afghanistan is far from becoming a democratic country. Elections also can catalyze conflict and spark outbreaks of violence in a fragmented state. Recall the Kenyan election of December 2007 that resulted in 1,300 deaths and more than 600,000 displaced persons. Or the 2014 Bangladesh election: more than 500 deaths were reported in the months preceding the vote, with an additional 62 casualties in January 2014.


Afghans have voted multiple times since the Taliban government was evicted in 2001. The voting experience has been mixed. In 2004, Hamid Karzai was elected Afghanistan’s first post-Taliban president. Parliamentary elections were held in 2005, though turnout, at only 50 percent, was disappointing. Turnout dropped to 33 percent in the 2009 presidential election, which was marred by allegations of widespread fraud and a disputed outcome. The presidential election of 2014 was tainted by vote-rigging accusations, and led to an awkward power-sharing arrangement with Ashraf Ghani as president and Abdullah Abdullah as the country’s chief executive officer. Just this April, within weeks of the opening of voter registration, a suicide attack at a registration center killed 57 and wounded over 100.

Regardless of whether elections are the best thing for Afghanistan right now, they are nearly certain to take place in October as scheduled. And their success will determine Afghanistan’s trajectory — toward either eventual peace, or protracted and deepening conflict. With the inexorable, if gradual, dissipation of international attention to Afghanistan, a successful election cycle in 2018-19 could be the most important thing for Afghanistan’s future since the 2002 Bonn Agreement.

The critical factors defining the success of an election are the security and the legitimacy of the process. If candidates, campaigners and voters are frightened or intimidated, the election will fail to demonstrate the electorate’s true political preferences. If the electoral process is compromised by fraud or manipulation, the outcome will be distorted and discredited, again subverting the electorate’s true political preferences.

Providing country-wide security for an election in Afghanistan would be daunting for any security force, but the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) on its own will be overwhelmed. It might be argued that election security is not a military responsibility; however, with the decline of inter-state war, this is becoming one of the most critical military responsibilities, especially in countries where the military is among the few credible institutions.

Operation Resolute Support can help; there is still time for intensive training of the ANDSF on election neutrality and appropriate military behavior in securing the country’s 7,355 polling stations. Coalition forces should team with ANDSF for pre-election candidate and campaign security, election day polling station security, and vote count security after ballots are in. Distribution of ballots and official voting material to polling stations could be expedited by coalition air assets.

While no foreign effort can guarantee the legitimacy of any election, a robust international observer mission can demonstrate our ongoing commitment to Afghanistan and provide a modest deterrent against fraud and voter intimidation. The magnitude of resources the international community has invested in Afghanistan over the past 17 years justifies a substantial observation effort. Recent events have shown that observing elections in Afghanistan is likely to be dangerous; Resolute Support can offer protection for observers.

A discredited election — or worse, an election that erupts into violence — could trigger Afghanistan’s descent into a death spiral to renewed lethal anarchy, such as it experienced in the early 1990s. That anarchy, which the international community observed passively, led to the emergence of the Taliban and, ultimately, to a war we are still fighting today.

Michael Miklaucic is a senior fellow at National Defense University Institute for National Strategic Studies, and the editor of  NDU's journal, PRISM. He has served in various positions at the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Department of State, including chief operating officer for the USAID Office of Democracy and Governance, and rule of law specialist in the Center for Democracy and Governance. In 2002-2003, he served as the Department of State deputy for war crimes issues.