Elections 2019: Is Afghanistan Ready?

On 17 September, a blast rocked Ashraf Ghani’s campaign rally in Parwan province, echoing the words of Mohammad Ismail Khan, a former Mujahideen leader turned politician, who previously stated that “the current situation in Afghanistan is not suitable for elections.” Ismail Khan’s pessimism, as well as that of other stakeholders, is no surprise given the political activity over the last few weeks. The collapse of peace talks between the US and the Taliban as well as the increase in the number of attacks by the Taliban paint a grim picture for the region’s upcoming general election.

In addition to the uncertainty over the US commitment to security in the region, as well as the escalation of violence from Taliban forces, history demonstrates that elections are tumultuous events in Afghanistan with reports of voter suppression, intimidation and ballot stuffing. A report by European Union election observers in 2014 suggested that more than two million votes — or about a quarter of total votes cast — came from polling stations with voting irregularities. This begs the question as to how the Afghan security forces will manage the September 28 elections and whether the country is, in fact, ready for the looming deadline.

This election has been far from orderly since the beginning with many presidential candidates opting to avoid public addresses unless necessary, due to security concerns. The New York Times reported that Ghani himself “was reduced to addressing virtual rallies across the country via video-chat.”

Taliban activity increased across Afghanistan in the last few years, but their bombardment of Baghlan province in the north creates an even larger hurdle for the elections. Disruptions in the province also obstruct the AH76, one of the only highways linking the north to Kabul. The severing of communication and transport links will have a major effect on the region and heavily disrupt voters in the run-up to elections.

There is little doubt that violence will escalate in the coming weeks, especially since the Taliban have vowed to target the elections since the breakdown of talks with the US. “On any given day, there is fighting in nearly two dozen of the country’s 34 provinces” and as a result of this, over a quarter of the country’s polling stations will remain closed due to a lack of security.

The Taliban’s alleged control over 70% of Afghanistan is not the only terrorism-related hurdle that Afghanistan faces in the run-up to elections. A bombing at a wedding in Kabul that killed 63 people in August, and the assault on Mullah Habatullah Akhundzada (the younger brother of Afghanistan’s Taliban chief), presents a grave reminder of the increasing influence of ISIL in Afghanistan.

Trump’s suggestion that he may continue to withdraw troops despite the lack of a peace deal may provide Ghani with a challenge he has not had to face in many years: facing the Taliban without US support. One could expect a drastic decrease in the morale of Afghan troops who rely heavily on US airpower as well as training and heavy weaponry.

Even if the winning party survives the inevitable accusations of fraud and vote-rigging, Afghanistan’s governing structure has historically consisted of a weak central government unwilling or unable to enforce significant financial or administrative mandates on all of Afghanistan’s diverse ethnic communities. This is a result of Afghanistan’s multiethnic and mostly tribal society which consists of fourteen tribal groups.

Although intra-Afghan talks are integral to the establishment of peace in the region, foreign intervention will also play a major role. Security forces, already spread thin, cannot afford the loss of US airpower, military training and heavy weaponry. Aside from security, the election process itself riddled with accusations of fraud and vote rigging in 2014, will heavily rely on an independent commission who will, ideally, give a sense of legitimacy to the election. This would at least allow the incoming government the ability to govern without the controversy that surrounded the beginning of the current government’s term.

Foreign involvement rarely creates the sense of authentic free and fair elections. However, as elections so strongly influence the extent to which a fragile state becomes stabilized, it is integral that stakeholders (including the US and NATO) are present and continue to provide the support, or at least the security, needed to hold the September 28 elections.

Image Credit: Staff Sgt. Christopher Allison of the US Department of Defense. An Afghan elder shows his purple inked finger to show he has voted and cannot do it twice.

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