by guest contributor ZACH ROSENBERG
During Afghanistan’s national elections two weeks ago, election workers and the electoral commission worked mostly as advertised, the Afghan army and police kept most voters safe despite more than 300 attacks and observers pronounced the elections mostly free and mostly fair. Yet turnout was low: only about 30 percent of eligible voters went to the polls. That was the view of four panelists at the Brookings Institution’s discussion on Afghanistan last week.
Michael O’Hanlon, Anthony Cordesman, Kimberly Kagan and Bruce Riedel are all highly-respected scholars. Most were involved in General Stan McChrystal’s recent strategic review of the Afghanistan conflict.
In many Afghan districts, particularly in the south and west of the country, the low turnout is being blamed on Taliban interference. The 2004 elections saw a turnout of around 70 percent. Riedel doesn’t think those numbers are representative, since the election was “more like a coronation”: Karzai had the backing of every major warlord and faction. Instead, Riedel said, the latest figures should be compared against the 2005 legislative elections, which were largely ignored by the ethnic Pashtuns that comprise most of the insurgency. The 2005 election turnout was closer to 40 percent. Now the insurgency includes members from almost all factions. Given the general absence of the central government in the lives of most Afghans, people had little incentive to vote.
The panelists were unanimous in decrying the near-total lack of U.S. civil support for military efforts. The “clear, hold, build” strategy has been reduced to just “clear.” Cordesman held a particularly negative view: he requested that people “stop talking about smart power, as if we had it,” and suggested that the capability to “hold and build” were “beyond nonexistent.” The other panelists, while softer in tone, said much the same thing. That there is virtually no coherence to or accountability in aid dispersal appears to have been a major factor in the current military climate in Afghanistan.
“This is the last fresh start,” O’Hanlon said, and one by one the other panelists agreed. The election’s outcome appears irrelevant. Much more important is that the election bestow legitimacy upon the government the winner will run. The Afghan government is among the most corrupt on the planet, and whoever wins the election, the panelists agreed, will probably be unable to change it. Several experts suggested before the election that the Taliban’s goal would not be to topple the government or kill candidates, and indeed, they did not try. Rather, the tactic would be to suppress enough voters to sow doubts about the legitimacy of the election winner and his future actions.
In this, they seem to have succeeded.
(Photo: Jason Reich)
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