By Brian Katulis, Kabul, Afghanistan
With three days until ballots are cast in presidential and provincial elections here, an air of uncertainty hangs over a process that U.S. President Barack Obama has called the most important event of the year in Afghanistan. Threats of violence along with worries about the potential for electoral fraud and possible post-election political violence loom, and no one knows what quite to expect in the coming days and weeks here.
I'm here in the country as part of one of the international delegations to observe the elections, with Democracy International, an organization that has gathered together a group of election specialists and Afghanistan experts and sent them around the country, including Kandahar, Helmand, Herat, and Paktika, among other places (check out the special DI election website here). DI has had some long-term observers in the country and plans to stay through the entire process, a process that could continue into the fall. We're getting a steady stream of reports from the observers posted around the country.
Although it's early to draw any definitive conclusions, here are five things to watch for in Afghanistan in the coming weeks:
1. Violence and threats from the Taliban. Security is the top concern, and this election is taking place in one of the most complicated security environments the world has ever seen in an election, according to several of the seasoned election specialists I've spoken with on this trip. "It's an extraordinary thing to hold an election in the middle of a war," Ambassador Richard Holbrooke said at a State Department press briefing last month. July was the most violent month in Afghanistan since the war started in 2001.
The Taliban issued new threats to voters over the weekend, saying that they would target polling centers on Election Day. "You should not participate in the elections because you might be a victim of our operations," one letter distributed in Kandahar said. One of the DI election observers reported to us that an election official in Kapisa, in the northeast part of the country, had started to carry a pistol because of threats and concerns about violence. Commanders with the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan say that their forces will provide perimeter security for the elections, with Afghan forces and police taking responsibility for security at polling stations. How much the Taliban will disrupt this election remains to be seen, but a suicide bomber who killed seven and injured dozens more on Saturday near ISAF headquarters in Kabul further heightened security worries.
2. The last days of campaigning. Despite the serious security concerns, the election campaign continues. Election observers in Kandahar reported to us over the weekend that just as the Taliban step up their anti-election campaign, they witnessed candidates increasing their own campaigns, with more posters appearing on the streets. Just last night, President Hamid Karzai participated in a national televised debate with two of his rivals; a previous presidential debate on Tolo television last month that Karzai skipped was reportedly watched by more than 10 million Afghans, about a third of the public here. The media has given the campaign a lot of play. There is a "Daily Show" style program poking fun at politicians and a reality show called "The Candidate" that pits young Afghans in a mock election.
In addition to nearly 40 presidential candidates (the number has decreased with recent dropouts), there are more than 3,100 candidates running for four-year terms in 420 seats in 34 provincial councils.
The level of campaign activity has varied according to the area, but the main point is that the Taliban threats and violence haven't shut down the campaign nationwide. A joint report released earlier this month by the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission and the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan found some challenges resulting from the insecurity, with severe limitations on freedom of movement, assembly, and association in some parts of the country.
Yet the election goes on, and the real test will come Thursday, when we see how many of the 17 million Afghans registered to vote show up at the polls. Many observers expect a light turnout in the morning, as voters wait and see what the situation looks like.
3. Concerns about electoral fraud, irregularities and mismanagement. These elections will be the first elections post-2001 administered by Afghan authorities -- the Afghan Independent Election Commission (IEC) is managing the process. The 2004 presidential election and 2005 parliamentary and provincial council elections were joint efforts by the United Nations and Afghan authorities, so these elections are a test case of Afghan institutions.
Media reports have already highlighted some concerns about possible irregularities in the registration process. For example, there are signs of a high number of women registered to vote compared to men in certain parts of the country, raising questions about possible improprieties. DI observers in Herat spoke with some voters who were unable to register because they did not have a national identity card. And there are worries about possible vote tabulation problems in remote polling centers.
But at this early stage, it is way too early to draw any conclusions about these potential problems and what impact they will have on the overall electoral process. The expectation among most election observers -- Afghan and international alike -- is that the elections won't be a perfect, given the challenges. Different monitoring groups like the one I am with will produce statements and reports, but the real test is whether the Afghan people accept the results as legitimate and sees the leaders selected for presidential and positions on the provincial councils as reflecting their will. And only time will tell whether these elections advance or undermine stability.
4. Post-election uncertainty. In addition to the potential for more pre-election attacks by the Taliban, speculation abounds about the possibility for post-election political violence between different factions. The presidential elections would go to a second round if no candidate receives more than 50 percent of votes cast. If a second round happens, the top two candidates would face off in early October. Some observers worry that if there are signs of widespread fraud or voter intimidation; a losing candidate may not accept the legitimacy of the results and might turn to violence to settle scores.
Some worries exist about possible post-election violence over provincial election results too. In meetings DI election observers had in Jalalabad over the last few days, for example, residents expressed worries about possible post-election violence between three main tribal families running different candidates.
5. Getting on with the real business of governing. Finally, one of the most important things to watch closely is what actually happens after these elections -- what the new president and leaders at the provincial councils actually do with the power they obtain through the elections. It is a basic point, but ironically all too often overlooked. It has happened before in Afghanistan and in other countries -- a lot of energy and effort goes into an election process -- but then getting on with the real business of governing is overlooked and insufficient investments are made in helping build institutions. The challenge of actually linking the efforts of provincial councils -- which have vaguely defined advisory roles -- with the other levels of governance are considerable, and are probably just as difficult as building the Afghan National Army and police.
Hopefully, the new interagency team that Ambassador Holbrooke has assembled at the State Department, will work with international organizations and other countries to help provide Afghanistan with the much-needed post-election assistance in strengthening governance and institutions throughout the country. An opportunity was missed to follow through on the last elections and make some serious gains in advancing stability in Afghanistan, in large because of the distraction of the Iraq war.
The debate over U.S. policy in Afghanistan is heating up again in Washington, with people asking serious questions about the end goals and metrics for progress both here and in Pakistan. The next few days of campaigning and the post-election period in Afghanistan will likely have a major impact on that policy debate, and no one can predict how things will go out here. Watch this space for more reports from Afghanistan -- it is shaping up to be an interesting few weeks here.
Brian Katulis is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and a member of an election-observing delegation with Democracy International. You can find him on Twitter @Katulis.
Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images