Afghanistan Votes. Who Cares?

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by Joshua Foust on 8/18/2009 · 19 comments

This was originally posted to the World Politics Review blog.

There is tremendous buzz about Afghanistan’s elections. Open up any op-ed page, and you can find countless articles about votes and democracy and Karzai not instantly winning, and whatever else. But what I don’t get is why anyone cares.

Democratic elections usually rest on a few basic principles: a free and fair vote, an uncoerced selection of candidates, and an agreement by all parties to abide by the results. Afghanistan doesn’t quite qualify for any of these.

  • Take the idea of a free and fair vote. Pajhwok, an internationally-funded independent Afghan news service, has an entire news page set aside for incidents of voter intimidation—and I don’t mean by the Taliban (more on them later). It runs the gamut from the government arresting supporters of Abdullah Abdullah, to police killing Nuristanis for asking for enough ballot boxes to cast their votes.
  • The government is building up “tribal security” forces modeled on the arbakai, a traditional tribal militia. Only, these forces are going to be different from all the other forces that have come before, will be given better weapons, and will not be subject to the disarmament and de-mobilization programs that have stood down other informal militias. In other words, they are flooding the country with guns to try to create security for the election.
  • Shortly before the registration deadline passed, Gul Agha Sherzai—the former-warlord governor of Nangarhar Province who had taken to American newspapers to make the case for his impending presidency—abruptly withdrew his own nomination amid rumors of a deal cut with Hamid Karzai.
  • Speaking of deals, what’s “free and fair” about Karzai de-exiling a man like Abdul Rashid Dostum—the Uzbek warlord who faces allegations of America-sponsored mass killings in 2001—to deliver the Uzbek vote?

We could go on. The very fact that several parties expect the Uzbeks to essentially vote as a bloc makes me question the entire validity of the vote: this is not like a party member voting a party line, these are subjects doing their ruler’s bidding. In interviews all around the country, you see a similar dynamic—“we’ll vote for whomever our elder tells us to.” What’s worse, many people have been explicit that they plan on voting for whomever they think will win—which means, they are voting for Hamid Karzai.

Lastly, there is the Taliban question. Until Abdullah made a surprisingly strong showing, the Taliban were almost absent from the election—in particular they didn’t interfere with voter registration over the last year. Even though they’re doing what insurgencies do, and attacking some polling stations here and there, it is obvious, especially from the soldiers on the ground, that there is no way they could possibly secure even a majority of the polling stations around the country. Despite that, there won’t be a major Talibn disruption because they know better than we do that even a runoff election will not change a thing in the country.

If Hamid Karzai wins, it’s the failing status quo, and a powerful narrative that democracy doesn’t work. If Abdullah Abdullah somehow wins, then he’ll have to deal with the powerful entrenched interests in Kabul that even Karzai couldn’t meaningfully change—which would mean a continuation of the status quo and a powerful narrative that democracy doesn’t work. If somehow the planets align and Ashraf Ghani wins, then Kabul will get to experience yet another America-friendly egotistical technocrat—precisely what Karzai was in 2002—and very little would likely change. You know the rest.

While this matters on a theoretical level—Afghanistan has never before tried to change a government through election—the chances of it meaning anything in a strategic, pragmatic, or personal level are so remote it’s difficult to understand what all the hubbub is about. Then again, this is also an argument I would be thrilled to lose, because if Afghanistan is consistent about anything, it is surprising its Western observers.

Photo: Afghan women register to vote, 2004, courtesy flickr user The Advocacy Project.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Michelle Page August 18, 2009 at 12:32 pm

An interesting article. Readers might be interested to know about the important role that women candidates and women voters are playing in the upcoming elections. In fact, the US Senate just passed Resolution 251 that recognizes the critical role women will play in the upcoming elections.Read more here:

Willem Buys August 18, 2009 at 1:45 pm

Though I can find me in agreement with most of the observations presented here, I would not worry as much as the author does about villagers voting whatever their elders tell them to. Afghan society is for the most structured around its smallest denominator, the tribe, which is where the core allegiance of the Pashtu villager lies. Any solution or settlement of issues will have to go through these canals for it to be socially accepted, so I would be perfectly happy to settle for a kind of tribal democracy over an overly ‘Western’ democracy which is more likely to uproot what’s left of a very fragile but still existing social order. After all, I believe that is most suitable given Afghanistan’s unique social and cultural heritage.

Transitionland August 18, 2009 at 3:54 pm

Oh, and million more women are being excluded from participating at all this time. You left that part out. Legitimacy – it requires the wimminz.

anand August 18, 2009 at 4:31 pm

William, I agree. What is wrong with people consulting their elders, tribes and leaders on how to vote? It is their choice Most countries in the world are free democracies, including almost every country in Latin America and most Asian countries. Why should Afghanistan be any different?

“free and fair vote” Isn’t this mostly happening?
“uncoerced selection of candidates” Isn’t this mostly happening?
“and an agreement by all parties to abide by the results.” Hasn’t this happened?
No country is perfect and neither will Afghanistan be. Maybe experienced other developing countries more, makes someone more forgiving of Afghanistan’s many challenges and shortcomings.

Do the results matter?

The Presidential election might matter. The PM is the commander in chief of the ANA and ANP. Abdullah Abdullah might use these forces differently from how Karzai would. In fact, it is likely he would. Abdullah might make a difference in GIRoA civilian governance. We just don’t know yet. Maliki made a big difference in the GoI, IA, and IP.

I think the provincial elections really will matter. The provinces will have to deliver local services and competence to be reelected. Provincial council members are also likely to travel to the districts and take specific granular interest in specific projects. The international community can target financial assistance and even ANSF/ISAF security to specific districts and provinces with competent governments at the expense of less competent districts and provinces, thereby encouraging the bad ones to improve their behavior.

At least some of the elected provincial officials are likely to be competent. Thousands of them are running. 😉

anand August 18, 2009 at 4:42 pm

Transitionland, a record number of woman are likely to vote. That gives the vote legitimacy.

What makes a good Afghan president:
1) improved ANSF management
2) improved civilian agency management
3) soliciting and obtaining more international support
4) facilitating business development

To just discuss part 3: Abdullah might be better than Karzai. Abdullah has good relations with Iran, Russia, Turkey and India. He might be able to persuade them to do more to train, equip and fund the ANSF. If Turkey would super embed an advisory brigade in an ANA Corps or the Kabul 111th division HQs, and keep supporting this adopted ANA Corps for many years without any caveats on where the ANA Corps and its Turkish advisers could deploy, it would make a major tactical and strategic difference in the fight.

India could contribute thousands of its best officers and NCOs to Afghan officer and NCO academies and increase their limited participation in the CSTC-A (a commitment that has been limited to avoid offending Pakistan.)

India, China, Indonesia and Malaysia might be good candidates to send police that emded with provincial ANP and ANCOP. They would be very helpful in legal issues.

Briandot August 19, 2009 at 12:36 am

Not that I don’t think it’s a good idea, but India contributing thousands of officers and NCOs, even limited to CSTC-A, would make Pakistan go apes***.

I think you’re being a somewhat overly critical on a couple of fronts. Aside from your view of Dostum (who is by no means a saint but is not the conspiratorial mass murderer you paint him as), I think you’re also not giving the candidates enough credit. Personally, several of them interest me, not just because of the their intellectual capacity (Ghani, Abdullah) but also because I believe that someone who is less concerned about maintaining his Pashtun constituency (e.g., Karzai) would go a long way toward making progress in the corrupt heap of crap that is GIRoA.

anand August 19, 2009 at 1:10 am

Briandot, I agree on Abdullah. I think he would be better than Karzai. He would be less dependent on the patronage system than Karzai. Abdullah would be able to stand up to his old Northern Alliance chums in a way that Karzai has not yet been able to do. Abdullah’s credentials at Massood’s side are rock solid . . . his former colleagues would be afraid to cross him. The fact that the Taliban wants Abdullah to lose tells me that they fear him more than Karzai . . . a very good sign.

Do not underestimate the importance of good leadership at the top of the ANA and ANP. It would make a world of difference. If the President would “retire” many mid and senior grade officers and replace them with professional competent Lieutenant and Captains, of which the ANA has many . . . it would be a major strategic blow to the Quetta Shura Taliban and Haqqani. Abdullah would find it easier to do this than Karzai. Abdullah isn’t scared of firing old Northern Alliance, anti Soviet, and pro Soviet officers the way Karzai is. Abdullah would also be willing to stand up to ISAF in ways that Karzai is reluctant to do.

India, Russia, Iran and Turkey, and most anti Taliban Afghans would trust him to negotiate with the Taliban in a way that they may not trust Karzai. Abdullah might “discover” the Taliban the way Nixon discovered China.

Observer August 19, 2009 at 8:46 am

On the role of women in the election issue, the Christian Science Monitor had a good story about that yesterday:

David M August 19, 2009 at 9:28 am

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 08/19/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

Noah Tucker August 19, 2009 at 10:18 am

Okay, I’ll bite:

Willem Buys said: Afghan society is for the most structured around its smallest denominator, the tribe, which is where the core allegiance of the Pashtu villager lies.

First of all, the Pashtuns (Pashtu is a language, not an enthicity, btw) are not even the majority of the population of Afghanistan according to any neutral estimates, so I’m not sure how you can build an entire democracy based on their “unique traditions.” Secondly, tribe is not the smallest denominator of even a traditional tribal system, it’s near the top or in the middle, depending on how many levels of organization you go up or down(confederacy and ethnicity are both higher, sub-tribe, clan, and lineage are all below in an idealized segmentary model).

Without getting into the anthropology of tribes, the main argument I have is that the government of Afghanistan cannot be founded or based primarily on idealized Pashtun traditions and called a representative democracy of any sort. People very frequently make the mistake of trying to apply Pashtun models to the all the rest of the country (like creating “tribal militas” for the Uzbeks and Tajiks, for example). I don’t think that’s much of a useful way forward.

Joshua Foust August 19, 2009 at 10:22 am

Not to mention that my example was Uzbeks, who don’t really “do” the tribe thing. Even non-tribal villages have elders. They are voting in blocs, that’s my problem.

Willem Buys August 19, 2009 at 1:59 pm

I accept the comment that the Pashtun population of Afghanistan does not constitute the majority in Afghanistan. My line of reasoning was mainly influenced by my experiences in Uruzgan province, and it is wrong to impose them on the country as a whole. The main argument I try to make though is that we tend to focus too much on our western perspective as we value each candidate through their respective capability of developing and modernising the Afghan state, whereas we have a near total neglect for the importance of building popular legitimacy of the Afghan presidency, and I believe that will be the biggest challenge in trying to establish one that will outlive ISAF involvement in Afghanistan. It is for that reason I appeal to existing political traditions to build legitimacy, and if the word Pashtu or other offend you then please substitute it for something else. Individual political participation does not exist in Afghanistan in the way we know it and it would be foolish to assume it can be superimposed from outside.

Christian August 19, 2009 at 1:02 pm

As for the voting in blocs, I believe it was one of the Centlivres duo or Audrey Shalinksy who described this (historically) in parliamentary elections of the 60s and 70s. My guess was that there wasn’t much pressure applied to the people, more a “better the jerk from my people that the other jerk.” As for the get-out-the-vote tactics this time around, we’ll see.

Kolohe August 19, 2009 at 11:57 pm

The very fact that several parties expect the Uzbeks to essentially vote as a bloc makes me question the entire validity of the vote:

Yeah, because African americans and white evangelical christians don’t do that at all.


CHI straightener August 21, 2009 at 4:05 am

As for the voting in blocs, I believe it was one of the Centlivres duo or Audrey Shalinksy who described this (historically) in parliamentary

Icanhaz August 21, 2009 at 6:38 am

killing people so they can vote

just wrong

omar August 21, 2009 at 11:40 am

IF abdullah wins AND power changes hands, AND karzai stays in afghanistan, that would be a HUGE deal and everyone should care. If Karzai wins (or is declared winner in some shennanigan ridden election) then it doesnt matter.

Noori Chronicles August 23, 2009 at 8:15 am

This is unbelieveable….they are killing people and for what?

el-belle August 24, 2009 at 3:00 pm

This was meant to go up last week so its a bit out of line with the way comments on this have developed, but I’m curious how the ‘bloc voting’ phenomenon is playing out on the provincial level, and what that can tell us about who in which hierarchy is
giving orders. In other words, if we asked every person in a given province who they were voting for at both the presidential and provincial level, do we see the formation of distinct and rival slates (ie if voting for Karzi then voting for local candidate X at local level but if Abdullah then local candidate Y) or does the selection of local candidates alter independently based on village, local warlord allegiance, religion, ethnicity/tribe (where
either of those is appropriate) or some other identity marker?

I dont think any of these breakdowns indicate a more or less fair election, but I think it would give very important information about how local leaders are using identity as a political motivator (particularly if it turns out to be different in different regions, which would be my uninformed guess). Does anyone know if there has been any systematic attempt to look at this or
have any critiques of why this methodology wouldn’t be useful?

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