To the extent Afghanistan has impeded at all in the American consciousness over the past year, it has largely been the security transition that has dominated. Most news stories have focused on the U.S. and NATO drawdown and the increasing role of Afghan forces in both conducting and leading the fight. Looking forward, most attention has been paid to the prospects for concluding a Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA), and the continued uncertainty about whether U.S. and NATO forces will be staying or going.
In Afghanistan, by contrast, increasing attention is being paid to the other transition that has been put in train, that from one elected leader to another. If the security transition goes badly, it may not make much difference who governs Afghanistan next year, but the reverse is also true, if this political transition does not take place successfully, nothing achieved in the security sphere is likely to endure.
So if the bad news is that uncertainty about conclusion of the BSA continues to cloud the security transition, the good news is that the political transition continues to move forward on schedule and so far without significant disruption.
Afghans Take the Lead; Election Preparations on Track
Important progress this past summer, including passage of electoral laws, appointments to electoral institutions, and finalization of an electoral operational plan, have put the Afghans in a much better place than previous election cycles. Additionally, the candidate nomination period concluded, vetting of candidates took place, hundreds of complaints against both presidential and provincial council candidates were adjudicated, and final candidate lists were announced—including a list of 11 presidential hopefuls.
The Independent Election Commission (IEC), constitutionally authorized to administer elections in Afghanistan, has demonstrated its growing capacity and institutional strength in preparations for the 2014 elections. The announcement of an electoral timeline, operational plan, ballot procurement, design and distribution, along with administrative guidance, staffing, and regular meetings with candidates, civil society organizations, and electoral organizations continues to help create an environment of transparency, contributing to confidence in the electoral process. The successful “top-up” voter registration drive begun during the summer of 2013, in which new voters registered by the millions largely without incident, also demonstrates greater IEC capacity. However, although there is room for optimism in the IEC’s performance, overt political pressure could derail the IEC’s progress. Fortunately, political entities have so far largely refrained from interfering in the IEC’s preparations.
The Independent Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) is a relatively new institution, permanently established through the passage of the new electoral legislation this past summer. The ECC successfully adjudicated complaints stemming from candidate registrations in October, but since then has made halting progress. The slow pace of appointing provincial officers delayed the establishment of provincial ECC offices, and a memorandum of understanding between the IEC and ECC to co-locate in provinces and clarify relations between the two independent bodies is yet to be finalized. However, the publication of the ECC’s rules of procedure, along with the February 18 inauguration of the 102 provincial ECC commissioners, is important progress. We encourage the electoral bodies to clarify and publicize widely the procedural rules for settling disputes so that people with electoral complaints know where, when, and how to file their claims.
The Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) are hard at work with security planning for the upcoming elections, and they are devoting all available resources and energy into planning for many plausible contingencies. They are working in coordination with the IEC to strike the right balance to increase participation without increasing opportunities for fraud. On January 12, the Ministry of Interior issued its assessment of polling center security and concluded that 414 of the 6,845 polling centers proposed would be inaccessible on Election Day. Since then, the IEC has added an additional 323 polling centers. On February 19, the IEC publicly released its list of 6,775 polling centers with 21,663 polling stations (12,705 for males, 8,958 for females). The IEC does not intend to add any additional polling centers to the list, but given the dynamic security environment, some of the 6,775 in high-risk areas may fall into the “closed” category before Election Day. The release of the polling center list more than six weeks before the polls marks an improvement from the 2009 election, when the polling center list was released only days before Election Day.
Election Monitoring and Observation
Election monitoring and observation is one of the best ways to mitigate fraud and ensure the credibility of the electoral process. Consistent with Afghan responsibility for Afghan elections, domestic observation efforts are being bolstered to enable over 12,000 domestic observers to monitor the 2014 elections. Over 300,000 candidate agents are also expected to participate in monitoring efforts. The IEC is also inviting international observers to take part. National Democratic Institute (NDI), Democracy International (DI), and International Crisis Group (ICG) are the three organizations who are currently fielding international observation groups accredited by the IEC.
The EU and OSCE also plan to send election monitoring teams. USAID has awarded $8 million to support two independent international election observation missions for upcoming elections. The U.S. will continue to support the election process in a variety of ways, while in no respect supporting any particular candidate or party. We encourage the IEC and ANSF to work to ensure observer and candidate agent access to all open polling centers, including those in remote and high risk parts of the country.
The Campaign to Date
Posters appeared overnight and thousands attended rallies as presidential campaigning kicked off in Kabul on February 2. Enthusiasm for the elections is on the rise and Afghan society is showing increasing democratic political sophistication, with lively media coverage focusing on candidate rallies and platforms, and voter opinions. A series of televised live debates focused on issues rather than ethnicity have been particularly well-received. Afghan news outlets offered minute-by-minute debate updates on their portals, Facebook pages, and Twitter feeds as candidates exchanged views on security, foreign affairs, the BSA, corruption, economics, and women’s rights, among other things.
Four weeks in, campaigns are increasing their presence outside of Kabul. Independent Afghan media outlets, such as Tolo News and Pajhwok, are highlighting citizen requests for candidates to travel to the provinces and present their platforms in person. Afghan civil society organizations are also inviting candidates to events and question and answer sessions to explain their platforms and thoughts. For example, one conference earlier this month brought together many presidential candidates and campaign officials with women from all 34 provinces to discuss substantive policy concerns – the first time something like this has occurred in Afghanistan, showing the growing voice of women in the political sphere.
Overall, a cautious sense of optimism has taken hold in Afghanistan over the elections. Whereas a year ago, many Afghans doubted that elections would even take place, more Afghans are now confident about the process and hopeful about the elections. If successful, the election can pave the way for Afghanistan’s first peaceful and democratic transfer of presidential power in its history. A successful transfer of power from President Karzai to a democratically-elected successor this year will do more than virtually anything to solidify the gains made over the last 12 years. It will also show all Afghans – including the Taliban that the rule of law matters and that country’s young constitutional system is resilient in the face of myriad challenges. To date, candidates have mostly played by the rules and respected the authorities of independent electoral institutions. Government organs have worked in coordination with the IEC on election security and administrative issues, and Afghan media have provided broad and generally balanced coverage and analysis of the candidates and election issues
Afghans are heading toward the polls at a time of rising incomes, rising longevity, rising literacy, rising mobility, rising political engagement, and, of course, also rising uncertainty about the future.
Despite uncertainty about the security transition and the continued international commitment, recent polling suggests that most Afghans are more optimistic about their future than are most American or other outside observers. Indeed Afghans tend to be more optimistic about their future than most Americans are about our own. Thus the most recent poll finds that 67 percent of Afghans believe their country is headed in the right direction, as opposed to the only 33 percent of Americans who hold a similar view about their own country.
Another striking figure is that 77 percent of Afghans believe that the upcoming elections can make a difference to their lives. Afghans may be divided by ethnicity, language and religion, but they don’t seem to be experiencing grid lock, and the current Presidential campaign does not evidence polarization, but rather the opposite, as the current presidential campaign is surfacing more agreement than discord on all the major issues facing the country.
According to the recent Asia Foundation survey, 76 percent of Afghans believe that they are economically better off today than they were under the Taliban. Among women, northerners and urban dwellers, the numbers are even higher. And it’s easy to see why. Between 2002 and 2012 Afghanistan experienced a greater improvement in human development, a measure of health, education, and standard of living, than did any other country in the world, as measured by the UN Development Program.
Afghanistan’s GDP has grown an estimated 9 percent annually since 2002 – overall, the economy has more than quadrupled over the last 12 years.
Democracy and Governance
These development and social changes are important to the daily lives and future prospects for Afghans. But they are also crucial to the achievement of our national security objectives in Afghanistan. An Afghanistan that is increasingly well-governed, increasingly prosperous, and whose people have a vision and expectations of a future that they want to see realized is one that will be more stable and secure and unlikely ever again to export international terrorism.
Uncertain Security Transition
Despite all these improvements, Afghanistan remains one of the poorest, least developed lands on earth. And also one of the more violent, although by no means the most. Despite its ethnic, linguistic, and religious divisions, there is no ethnic cleansing, no purely sectarian violence. But there is an ongoing insurgency, one conducted by those who would seek to reverse much of the progress of which I have spoken.
These advances are, in consequence, quite fragile.
A recent Congressionally-mandated study by the Center for Naval Analysis finds that Afghan security forces require not just external funding, but continued international military training, advice, and assistance for several more years if they are to sustain themselves against the Taliban insurgency and maintain control of the major population centers. This is certainly consistent with the Administration’s own analysis and that or our Alliance partners. This is why we have negotiated a Bilateral Security Agreement and why NATO is negotiating its own status of forces agreement. Our intention was to have concluded the BSA last fall, to have announced our intended 2015 troop commitment shortly thereafter, and to spend 2014 working with our NATO partners on the disposition and functioning of this new force. Unfortunately, President Karzai’s decision not to sign the accord that he negotiated, that he is not seeking to change, and that he agrees is important for Afghanistan has thrown this timetable badly off.
On Tuesday, President Obama told President Karzai that he was open to waiting until later this year to sign the BSA if necessary, but that this delay would not be without cost. While we will continue to plan for a residual force to train, advise, and assist the Afghan security forces and to conduct a limited counter-terrorism mission, the scale of this commitment may well wane as uncertainty over our welcome persists, and we will also need to plan for the alternative of a full withdrawal.
There are those who foresee a repetition in Afghanistan of our experience with Iraq three years ago, when a similar uncertainty led ultimately to complete withdrawal. But Afghanistan is different from Iraq in any number of respects. Back in 2011 the Iraqis did not want us, they did not need us, and we had already promised to leave. No Iraqi political figure was then ready to argue publicly for a continued American military presence. Iraq had plenty of money. And the Bush Administration had signed a legally binding agreement several years earlier committing the United States to withdraw all its troops by the end of 2011.
Afghanistan is different in all these respects. The Afghans want us to stay, they need us to stay, and we signed an agreement two years ago committing the two sides to a long term security partnership. So far almost the only prominent Afghan to speak out against the BSA is Mullah Omar. President Karzai repeatedly acknowledges the importance of this agreement for Afghanistan and nearly all other Afghan leaders have urged its early conclusion.
And for good reason. The Afghan state and its security forces are much more dependent on continued American and international support than was Iraq. Since 2011 Iraq has seen a slow increase in terrorist violence, but Iraq was not then and is still not yet in the midst of an all out civil war. By contrast, in the absence of a continued train, advise, and assist U.S. and NATO military mission, Afghanistan’s descent to more widespread violence and political disintegration is likely to be much more rapid. Recognition of Afghanistan’s continuing need for American and international support led our two governments to conclude our Strategic Partnership Agreement in 2012 and immediately embark upon the Bilateral Security Agreement to ground that aspect of the partnership.
Most Americans are tired of the Afghan conflict and believe the results have not justified the cost, but most Americans also recognize the need to withdraw gradually and responsibly. Two-thirds of Americans say the war was not worth fighting, according to a recent ABC/Washington Post poll, but 55 percent nevertheless favor keeping some U.S. forces there for training and counterterrorism purposes.[ix] This margin of support for remaining so committed is narrow, however, and likely to diminish further as long as uncertainty about our welcome persists. President Obama’s decision to leave open the possibility of concluding the necessary agreement with a willing partner later this year provides hope that this can all be worked out despite President Karzai’s refusal to conclude the agreement now, but the delay could still prove costly.