Violence, Voting Don’t Mix

Ahmed Rashid is the author of "Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia."

“Free and fair” democratic elections in Afghanistan may be good for President Bush’s war on terror and his reelection prospects in November, but they are not what Afghans need now.

An upsurge of violence in Afghanistan and U.S. pressure to carry out the September elections has dramatically curtailed reconstruction and humanitarian aid projects in a swath of provinces south and east of Kabul. This has enabled the resurgent Taliban to reassert de facto control in such provinces as Zabul, where 2,000 Marines have belatedly launched an offensive to drive the Islamic fundamentalists out.

During the last few weeks, the Taliban and Al Qaeda, which have vowed to disrupt the voting and eliminate Western influence in Afghanistan, have shown themselves capable of launching up to five attacks a day not only in the Taliban Pushtun heartland in the south and east of the country but in Kabul and the northwest. More than 400 Afghan and foreign aid workers, Afghan policemen, soldiers and civilians have died since January, including 11 Chinese contractors shot Thursday while they slept. Five U.S. soldiers have been killed since May 29.


This dire security situation has prompted many Afghans, European diplomats, U.N. officials and nongovernmental organizations to see the Afghan elections as chiefly a White House political objective. And there are concerns other than security. As the U.N. special representative to Afghanistan told the U.N. Security Council and NATO ambassadors late last month, “Whether it is counter-terrorism, electoral security, counter-narcotics or control of factional fighting, at this critical juncture ... international security assistance continues to make the difference between success and failure.”

President Hamid Karzai, who will meet Bush on Tuesday at the White House, is expected to easily win a five-year term in Afghanistan’s first elections in 40 years. More than a dozen political parties have registered to contest the elections, and eight candidates, including one woman, have said they will stand against Karzai.

The United Nations has registered 3.4 million Afghan voters out of a eligible pool of 10.5 million, but lack of security in the south makes it unsafe for U.N. voter registration teams to operate there. So far, some 900 U.N. registration sites are operating in the country; more than 4,600 will need to be set up before September.

Money is also a problem. Last week, the U.N. in Kabul urgently appealed to donors to come up with the $100 million needed to cover the costs of the elections. Pledges of about $70 million have been received, but “not one penny is in the bank,” said U.N. spokesman Manoel de Almeida e Silva.

There has also been little effort to deal with the burgeoning drug problem. This summer, Afghan farmers are expected to harvest the largest poppy crop in the history of the country, which last year supplied 75% of the world’s heroin. Yet, the Pentagon has refused to use U.S. troops to interdict drug shipments or help the Afghan government carry out eradication campaigns. In such a situation, the elections will be heavily influenced by drug traffickers, who include many senior Afghan ministers, warlords, commanders and provincial governors.

The enduring problem in Afghanistan is the failure of Western nations to live up to their commitments to provide peacekeeping troops. U.S. forces do not do peacekeeping. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which took over command of the International Security Assistance Force in August, has not deployed promised troops and equipment to enable the force to improve security across the country before the elections. Since August, NATO commanders have even had a hard time supplying special forces, helicopters and other aircraft to Kabul, the capital.


Nor will NATO deliver on its promise to set up five provincial reconstruction teams in northern and western Afghanistan by June 28, when the alliance will meet in Istanbul. U.S. soldiers have set up 12 teams in the south and west of the country. These civilian teams of up to 100 members could also provide a modicum of security for the elections. A U.N. request that NATO provide 5,000 troops for security in the weeks immediately before and after the elections was turned down.

NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer told NATO ambassadors in Brussels last month that the alliance was “flirting” with failure in Afghanistan. What was harsh private U.S. criticism of NATO’s performance has been more diplomatically put by Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, who, after a meeting of NATO ambassadors in Brussels on June 4, said, “This is still a painful process.”

A European ambassador in Islamabad, Pakistan, told me the Europeans were waiting for the U.S. elections in November to decide Bush’s fate before recommitting to Afghanistan. “There is an underlying feeling in many European capitals that [officials] just don’t want to be pushed around by what is seen as an American rather than an international agenda in Afghanistan,” he said. That’s unfortunate, because U.S.-European differences on Iraq are affecting the stabilization process in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, a $300-million U.N.-Japanese-Afghan government plan to disarm 60% of the 100,000-strong militias controlled by warlords before the elections is floundering. Since May, only 8,200 members of the militias have been disarmed. The U.N. deadline is July. Some of the most powerful warlords refuse to disband entire military units -- a key U.N. demand -- rather than just downsize them. The same warlords are trying to strike a deal with Karzai: They will not put up a consensus candidate against him if he leaves them alone, abandons the demand to disarm entire militia units and gives them a share of power after the elections. That’s similar to the deal U.S. envoys brokered between Karzai and the warlords in December at the loya jirga, or tribal grand council, to get the country’s new constitution ratified. Privately, U.S. officials have told the U.N. and Karzai that disarmament should mean no more than downsizing units, a clear signal that the U.S. does not want to rock the warlord boat before the elections.

Karzai’s visit to the U.S. was strongly opposed by several members of his Cabinet and some aides, who contend that now is not the right moment for any Muslim leader to be seen with Bush. The prisoner-abuse scandals in Iraq and Afghanistan, coupled with the Pentagon’s refusal to allow Afghan human rights officials into U.S.-run jails in Afghanistan, have angered many Afghans. “The president should have spent the time touring Afghanistan rather than the U.S.,” said one presidential aide in Kabul.

Karzai’s presence in Washington holds some peril for Bush as well, because it’s an occasion to raise the embarrassing question of what happened to the search for Osama bin Laden. In February, 20,000 U.S.-led coalition forces announced, with much fanfare, a major offensive to crush the Taliban, capture its leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, and track down Bin Laden. But U.S. military officers in Pakistan and Afghanistan now privately say it is highly unlikely that the Al Qaeda leader will be nabbed or killed before the U.S. election.


Regrettably, holding elections so early will only perpetuate and legitimize what is not working in Afghanistan. Better that the voting be postponed at least until spring to allow the U.S. and international community to make a more concerted effort to deal with the country’s escalating security problem.