The Challenges of Electoral Security in Afghanistan

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by Guest on 4/3/2014 · 1 comment is happy to welcome a guest post from Salima Ahmadi, an Afghan undergraduate student at the American University of Central Asia studying in the International and Comparative Politics department.

By Mohammad Jawed Nazari and Salima Ahmadi

Afghanistan’s presidential and provincial council elections are due to take place on April 5, 2014, with eleven presidential and 2,713 provincial candidates expected to compete in the vote. A smooth political transition depends on the success of both ballots, especially the presidential one. It is a unique opportunity for the Afghans to experience a smooth power transition, but many are concerned about the ability of Afghan security forces to oversee the vote. The failure of the 2014 elections could have catastrophic consequences for peace and stability not only of Afghanistan but across the entire region (Barakzay 2013). Averting that failure depends on scaling up security in the most vulnerable regions of the country, a sizable turnout and an effective anti-fraud strategy to ensure peace and stability prevail.

The last elections in 2009 preparations were marred by numerous suicide bombings targeting of electoral officials as local armed militia groups backed specific candidates and the Taliban played the role of a spoiler. Amid a limited presence of both Afghan and international military forces, voter intimidation was widely reported, and candidates were unable to campaign freely in some parts of the country (Kippen 2008).  Now, with far fewer American troops on the ground and a similar lack of internal capacity, Taliban insurgents have had free reign to target electoral officials, international workers and journalists. This article offers a security assessment of the upcoming elections based on lessons drawn from previous elections.

In Afghanistan, electoral violence has its roots in the four decades of conflict and militarized politics. Any visitor to Kabul and other cities will see the legacy of these conflicts – hundreds of thousands of Afghans disabled; a fraction of the number killed. Islamic radicalism, dating back at least as far as the Afghan-Soviet war, has been a key motor of these conflicts.

Historical background Islamic radicalism dates back to the 1960s when Afghan Islamist parties were formed and supported by the Pakistani Jama’at-i Islami. Following the overthrow of King Zahir Shah (1973) and the subsequent Soviet occupation (1979) in Afghanistan, “seven Mujahidin organizations” (see No. 1) adopted the common goal to resist Soviet reign. The parties soon split into ethnic groups such as the Tajik Jamait-i Islami and Pashton Hezb-i Islami. In the early 1980s two Shi’te Islamist parties drawn from the ranks of young ethnic Hazaras living in Iran also emerged: the Harakat-i Islami of Sheykh Mohseni and the Nasr Party. In 1989 the Hazara ethnic parties united and established Hizb-i-Wahdat (party of unity) headed by Abdul Ali Mazari (Roy 2002).

During 1980s and 1990s Afghanistan witnessed a series of brutal civil conflicts waged between the above mentioned parties. Ethnic divisions and sectarian values were the most important bases for division. In the 1990s the so-called “new fundamentalists” re-entered the fray. This term usually refers to the adherents of a network of religious schools (madrassas) broadly affiliated to the Deobandi movement popular in South Asia. These “new fundamentalists” were not completely new: their network first emerged during the 1980s in Pak-Indo-Kashmir and gathered strength during the Afghan-Soviet war. Tensions between these Shiite radicals and the other Sunni groups increased following the Iranian revolution (1979).

The “new fundamentalists” launched a jihadagainst the west from 1990 onwards at around the same time the Taliban appeared as radical political party determined to topple all factions and occupy Afghanistan in its entirety (Roy 2002). Groups fighting the Pashtun-dominated Taliban included Junbesh Milli Islami (ethnic Uzbeks under the leadership of the famous warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum) who forged the northern alliance to survive.

After the attacks of 9/11, US forces engaged in a “war on terror” in Afghanistan laying the basis for a frail Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. In September 2003, a law on political parties was approved; with 86 political parties registered almost immediately with the Afghan justice ministry (National Democracy Institute 2011). In the years following many changes occurred; some parties crossed ethno-sectarian lines to establish broad-based coalitions such as the National Front Party. Others ceased engaging in radical activities and began engaging in non-violent participative politics. The Taliban and other factions wedded to radical Islam wanted no part in these laborious processes. They continued their vicious struggle against the weakened government in Kabul and remain a massive threat. Meanwhile, even those parties that renounced violence maintained significant paramilitary capacities, providing an unstable platform for intense domestic political competition.

Legacies of War It did not take long for the successful jihad to dissolve into broad-based ethno-sectarian conflict. With politics taking place in the shadow of war, it is no surprise that USAID’s 2012 electoral report notes “[t]he ethnic division among Afghanistan’s predominant traditional group affiliation and identities plays out in the electoral context through identity-based voting.” Electoral violence reflects the violence of the country’s recent history and contemporary fault lines. Candidates seeking “swing voters” in regions populated by other ethnicities face a genuine threat of attack.

Long-time rivalries stretching back in some cases to the ill-fated Soviet invasion of the country continue to dominate the political scene. In some cases they act as the insurgents do. They have a “similar range of tactics – from intimidation to assassination – employed to suppress turnout, coerce voters, and force the withdrawal of candidate from the election” (National Democratic Institute 2011). Their motives driving the use of these tactics may differ: “political rivals seek to gain political leverage and obtain control over public offices, while insurgent forces seek to delay, disrupt, or derail the electoral process which they portray as a western-imposed mechanism inconsistent with their country’s traditions and culture” (Ibid).

The product of this history, Afghanistan’s current regime has been categorized by some as an “anocracy” where “power is not vested in public institutions but spread amongst elite groups who are constantly competing with each other for power.” To remain in power, elites try to weaken the election as an institution, ratcheting up rhetoric on the historical tragedies of civil war in order to justify their own continued dominance of local politics.

A never-ending insurgency During the last presidential elections (2004 and 2009) the Taliban tried to discredit the electoral process using a wide range of tactics to prevent individuals from going to the polls, candidates from running, and electoral staff from fulfilling their roles. They tried to decrease turnout through voter intimidation, by issuing “night letters” and “verbal threats” (in-person, by telephone, and SMS texts) to individuals warning them “not to vote” and using similar threats to “force candidates to withdraw from election.” From that time onward the militant attacks have increased, inflicting daily casualties. According to the National Democratic Institute “around 300 Afghan National Police officers were killed alone in June of this year [2013].” Anti-government groups engaged in violence in the country are reinforced by external networks such as Al Qaeda, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), and Tehrik-e Taliban, a Pakistan based group that support the Afghan Taliban.

Attacks by these groups have been mounting over the last year or so.  In early 2013, a bomb was detonated in front of the Jowzjan provincial election office. On September 15, a provincial election official in Kunduz Province was assassinated by the Taliban, while on September 16 four election workers in Faryab Province were abducted by an unidentified armed group (Barakzi 2013). The turn of the year witnessed more attacks on local and international civilians and the March 29 attack on the Independent Election Commission headquarters is the biggest indication yet of the Taliban’s potential to derail the election. Insurgents have mostly targeted polling stations in the south and east where the Taliban are most active, and unofficial armed groups target those in the north of Afghanistan.

 Electoral Cycle Assessment

Security-related threats to a successful Afghan vote are best viewed in terms of threats before, during and after the vote takes place.

Pre-Election Phase The Pre-election phase is considered to have begun in November 2013 with the nominations for president and vice-president, and continues up to the vote itself on April 5. During the last two elections in Afghanistan, different tactics were used by insurgents to undermine the election before votes had been cast:

1)    Intimidation of voters: the Taliban used a range of tactics to suppress electoral participation and de-legitimize the election including issuing death threats and cutting off fingers stained with electoral ink.

2)    Intimidation of candidates during this phase is perpetrated principally by insurgent groups using night letters, and by political rivals, local powerbrokers, local warlords, and in some cases government officials. Armed clashes between rival candidates’ campaign staff and armed assaults on campaigners’ transport conveys are not unusual.

3)    Intimidation of election officials including national and international monitors. It is reported that the insurgent groups “involved in administration, threatened, kidnapped and killed individuals associated with the Independent Elections Commission (IEC) as well as international assistance organizations proving support to the process”.

On to election day The Taliban leader Mullah Omar, on his Eid holiday message, dismissed the election vote as a “waste of time” and said that the Afghans won’t participate because the winners are being chosen in Washington. He called the next president an American puppet and elections an “American value.” He indirectly warned his insurgents would threaten the process, words that look like deeds-in-the-making following their attacks on the IEC.

The two previous elections show that there were several tactics used to violate the process; the most common sort were attacks on polling centers and electoral officials by both Taliban insurgents and political rivals of the candidates standing for office. In 2009 the targeting of polling centers increased markedly in relation to 2004 with Rocket-Propelled Grenades and other types of armed assaults being complemented by a more “widespread use of suicide-and car-bombings” and the mining of roads (Barakzay 2013).

One of the most significant disruptions of the 2009 vote took place in Baghlan (northern Afghanistan), when the Taliban stormed the town, killing the police chief and preventing voting taking place. In Kunduz Province, the Taliban initiated 20 attacks on the day of the vote, including firing rockets at polling stations. In some other areas, the Taliban took direct control of polling centers and shut down their operations. However, as previously indicated it is not only the Taliban who act aggressively during voting. Evidence points to the widespread activity of militias without affiliation the Taliban, and in some cases, even the Afghan National Police, as threats to a free and fair vote (Ibid).  When forces loyal to a particular candidate target polling station it is usually in order to evacuate voters so that electoral malpractice can be accomplished without witnesses.

We should bear in mind that these incidents were able to happen when a three-tier system of security was in place involving security around polling centers provided by the Afghan National Police (ANP), the scaled up presence of the Afghan National Army (ANA), and ISAF coalition forces also in play. Given the Taliban’s current and unrelenting attacks on civilian and government targets this month, as well as the reduced circumstances of the third tier, April 5, 2014 could see violence worse than in 2004 and 2009 combined.

Post Election Day An overview of the most recent presidential vote shows that three forms of violence have occurred that could have been prevented by increased security.First, candidates and their supporters reportedly intimidate electoral staff into to committing fraud through deliberately miscounting votes and ballot box stuffing.

Second, supporters of losing candidates take to the streets to protest what they view as illegitimate results triggered by both perceived and proven electoral malpractice. The street actions range in form and intensity from marches that end peacefully to mob actions against regional counting centers. The third type of post-election violence can be viewed as a continuation of the insurgent-initiated violence on Election Day[25] targeting the transfer of ballots and ELC stakeholders. The [CR1] same thing can be predicted for 2014 election as well. Keeping these challenges in mind, the only hope for tackling security issues is the Afghanistan National Security Force (ANSF).

Over to the ANSF In the 2009 election, when Afghan security forces were strongly supported by international security forces, the IEC was able to open 5,200 to 5,300 polling centers. For the coming election, Afghan security forces claimed capacity to secure 6,600 centers but the IEC announced that “3,410 polling stations are facing notable security concerns, including 259 in areas under militant control.” The ANSF are now about 352,000, strong and lead most military operations in the country (a dramatic improvement on five years ago), but they lack critical means in terms of equipment, air power, logistical support, and trained man power to counter sophisticated insurgency attacks. At the same time, the international security forces (ISAF), which used to provide important logistical support, are leaving the country, and most of their remaining capacity will be absorbed by that complicated withdrawal. Given this grim backdrop, it seems that the question is not whether polling centers will be attacked, but how many will be attacked and how this may affect the legitimacy of the 2014 vote.

Conclusion Security has been the main challenge to all Afghan elections since 2004 and this challenge will be all the greater now that ANSF will be taking over proceedings. Stakeholders, encompassing monitors, journalists and the general public all need a secure environment if the vote is going to be deemed a success. As this article has argued, violence is multidimensional in nature meaning that responses to it must involve a mixture of good planning and on-the-ground initiative.

To reiterate, electoral violence is unlikely to be limited to attempts by the Taliban to scupper the vote – rival political groups will also take up arms. The Taliban view the election as a western-imposed mechanism inconsistent with their ideology. For the rivalrous political groups competing in the vote, elections are fine as long as they win them, or can at least obtain control over public offices in a post-ballot settlement.

Securing the election process is difficult mission involving pre, post and Election Day security actions. In pre-election phase securing electoral centers and the safety of candidates and the, transferring logistical goods and providing psychological immunity for people is  teams, as well as providing the broad masses with the confidence to participate in the vote.

In the pre-election phase security institutions should prepare a realistic list of secure areas where people can vote in order to minimize civilian casualties, a process that should involve independent security experts.

On Election Day itself, some violence is inevitable. It will involve a mixture of bombing, RPG assaults, mining and suicide attacks especially in the south and east of Afghanistan. ANSF coordinating with IEC can help mitigate the threat, keeping in mind that there will be softer security threats such as blackmail as well as widespread fraud. Combating blackmail and insuring the integrity of electoral officials cannot be openly threatened is vital to securing public acceptance of the vote and its outcome.

Post-election security is also important as sore losers will abound. They will block roads, conduct protests and spoil the political climate. Managing these incidents without bloodshed is vital for the ANSF, ANP and other security units. It should also be hoped that Afghan’s current president Hamid Karzai and whoever emerges as the winner of the April 5 vote aid security forces by opening up the process of political reconciliation after ballots have been cast.

Barakzay, Zekria, “2014 Presidential and Provincial Council Election in Afghanistan”, US Institute of Peace, Nov 2013.

Creative Associated International. 2012. “Afghanistan Electoral Security Assessment Report.”

Kippen, Krant, “Election in 2009 and 2010: Technical and Contextual Challenges to Building Democracy in Afghanistan”, AREU, Nov 2008, 15.

National Democracy Institute, 2011. “Political Parties in Afghanistan; a Review of the State of political parties after 2009 and 201

Roy, Olivier. 2002. “Islamic Radicalism in Afghanistan and Pakistan”, P.8., p. 4





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{ 1 comment }

anan April 7, 2014 at 8:40 am

What do you make of reports that voter turnout could have been close to 60%. The strategic calculation inside Afghanistan seems to be shifting towards the expectation that the ANSF and GIRoA will militarily be successful. Do you think this is part of why the Pakistani Army is considering their largest anti Taliban operation ever?

It seems likely that either Abdullah Abdullah or Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai will be more effective, popular and respected than final term Karzai. Both are also likely to take a tougher line in negotiations with the Taliban and Pakistani Army; partly because of the perceived strength of the ANSF.

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