Getting to the polls in Afghanistan might just turn out to be the easy part. The real bloodbath in that accursed country may come after today’s presidential elections.
It’s hard to imagine the security situation actually worsening in Afghanistan with violence at a seven year high. Afghan security forces have fought running gun battles through the streets of Kabul in recent days and a series of spectacular bombings have killed scores across the country. ISAF officials said offensive operations have been curtailed across the country to husband as many troops as possible to secure polling sites.
I was in Kabul during the 2004 presidential elections and the mood was one of jubilation and an excitement of things to come, not fear and hopelessness. To my regret I’m not there now, but from reading press accounts, it’s clearly a dramatically different country today, beaten down by the unrelenting rise in violence and the continuation of fighting that seems to have no end.
That’s not to say all was bliss back then. Violence spiked on election day in 2004. But the baseline back then was so much lower. There were only about 21,000 U.S. and NATO troops there at the time. In 2004, 59 western troops were killed in Afghanistan. Already this year, 279 have been killed.
Here is why things may actually worsen in the post-election phase. First off, the Taliban threatened to cut off voter’s ink stained fingers. This is a common insurgent intimidation tactic familiar enough from the Vietnam War and could all be bluster meant to suppress turnout. Yet, instead of lopping off fingers, the Taliban may focus their assassination campaign on elected officials at the local level, eliminating the most visible symbols of the Afghan government. Provincial council elections are also taking place today and the Taliban have assassinated or sent “night letters” to many local level leaders.
On a conference call this week with Australian Brig. Gen. Damien Cantwell, chief of election security for NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, I asked him what ISAF intended to do post-election to protect the Afghan people who braved Taliban threats. While he’s not British, his answer was along the need to “maintain a stiff upper lip” lines. He referred to President Hamid Karzai’s recent statement calling on the courage and resiliency of the Afghan people.
Cantwell said Afghan insurgent groups typically make grim threats to the locals with little follow through. “We’re not understating the threat. The enemy has demonstrated his brutality, his murderous nature on many occasions, particularly in Kabul and elsewhere,” Cantwell said, “but we need to be careful to further the enemy’s propaganda aims by taking those sorts of threats and spreading them around the Afghan population.”
The Afghan people are indeed brave and resilient. The problem is that security in more remote rural areas is poor to nonexistent and the Taliban are largely free to prey upon the population. I worry that ISAF may be able to surge troops to establish security around polling stations, but when the people return to their homes at night the Taliban will be there waiting.
The other real danger in the post-election phase was highlighted by former Afghan commander retired Gen. David Barno yesterday, speaking at the Center for National Policy in Washington. He worries that if Karzai doesn’t win an outright majority and there is a run off election, that the intervening period between elections could see a major escalation of violence as people polarize behind their chosen candidates and the people question the election’s legitimacy.
Questions of legitimacy will arise no matter the outcome, said Alexander Thier, director of the Future of Afghanistan Project at the U.S. Institute of Peace, also speaking at CNP. “Afghans believe that the outcome of the election is going to be determined in part by the international community and particularly by the U.S.,” he said. Such concerns can’t be just dismissed as conspiracy theorizing. “Why would Afghans believe that their leader will be chosen by a democratic process when the U.S. provides over 50 percent of the entire Afghan budget, has built its army and provides the salaries of most of the people that surround the president?”
The Karzai regime is widely viewed as corrupt, both among Afghans and many U.S. policymakers. The elections may actually heighten charges of illegitimacy against the Karzai government, Thier said, because he is widely disliked and he embraced former warlords to try and secure a victory. “My gravest fear about this election is that we come out with President Karzai with tarnished legitimacy, and then end up going into a five year cycle with increased violence and increased U.S. military presence propping up a president who is not seen as legitimate by his population. That is by far the most dangerous position we can be in.”