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POLITICS: “Cautious Optimism” In U.S. About Afghan Elections

Danielle Kurtzleben

WASHINGTON, Aug 21 2009 (IPS) - Security and diplomacy experts here are calling Thursday’s polls in Afghanistan relatively successful, though they caution that the ultimate success of the elections in terms of security and legitimacy is yet to be seen.

In a Friday press call, Ambassador James Dobbins, former special envoy to Afghanistan and director of international security at RAND; Mark Schneider, senior vice president at the International Crisis Group; and National Security Network senior adviser Gen. Paul D. Eaton (Ret.) discussed the Afghanistan elections and their repercussions, both for the Afghan people and U.S. foreign policy.

Eaton stressed that a legitimate election outcome is important not only for governance, but for the security situation in the country as well.

“The first role of government is to secure the governed,” he said, “and this goes to the citizens’ sense of legitimacy of their government. The security forces draw on that legitimacy.”

Dobbins said that the first step of this process – orderly campaigns and elections – has gone smoothly.

“There’s been a well-publicised campaign with a number of candidates, some of whom are clearly qualified to lead the country. And the playing field has been as level as one could reasonably expect, given the circumstances,” he said.

Despite being held against a backdrop of threats from Taliban insurgents and allegations of voter fraud, Afghanistan’s second-ever direct presidential election drew an estimated six to eight million voters, without any major violent disruptions.

Leaders from both the U.S. and Afghanistan spoke positively about the election process itself.

“So far, every prediction of disaster has turned out to be wrong,” U.S. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke said while touring polling places on Thursday, according to the Washington Post.

President Hamid Karzai also praised the Afghan people for braving Taliban discouragement to participate in the elections.

“The Afghan people dared rockets, bombs and intimidation to come out to vote… We regret the loss of civilian lives, but we are grateful for the sacrifices people made. It went very, very well,” Karzai told reporters in Afghanistan on Thursday.

The hotly contested elections featured a presidential race with 41 contenders, as well as 3,200 people running for 420 seats in the provincial council elections.

Voter registration numbers prompted hopes for a high turnout. An estimated 15 to 17 million Afghanis registered to vote, up from the roughly 12 million who registered to vote in the 2004 elections.

Yet turnout was slightly lower this year than in 2004. Just 40 to 50 percent of registered voters participated Thursday, as opposed to the 70 percent who voted five years ago.

Reports from polling centers across Afghanistan also showed uneven voter turnout. Far fewer voters participated in the southern provinces, where a majority of Thursday’s Taliban insurgent attacks happened.

The Taliban appears to have been moderately successful in its aim of discouraging voters. In rural areas, 800 of 7,000 polling places were closed due to attacks. In total, 27 people were killed by Thursday’s insurgent attacks, including 18 members of the Afghan security forces and nine civilians.

Schneider, however, considers the turnout impressive, given the extenuating circumstances that many voters faced. “Given the threats, more people were able to vote than were expected. Worldwide, 40 to 50 percent is not that bad,” he said on Friday.

What is important, he added, is what happens next, as election results, as well as any complaints of fraud, are made known. “In terms of fraud, legitimacy, [and] credibility, I think we still need to wait and see the outcome of the process,” said Schneider.

Currently, spokespersons for both incumbent President Karzai and challenger Abdullah Abdullah claim that their candidates are leading. Official results are not expected until Sep. 3. If no presidential candidate gets over 50 percent of the vote, a second round will be held in early October.

Dobbins sees a potential “advantage” in a second-round election: “Now, if the election goes into a second round, the element of contest will be even further highlighted, and in this sense the legitimacy of the result will be even further underscored.”

U.S. officials see the elections as the key to conferring legitimacy on the Afghan government, so that the two governments can ultimately work to defeat the Taliban and al Qaeda.

The most important work, policy analysts seem to agree, remains to be done.

Jonathan Morgenstein, a senior policy fellow at Third Way, a Washington-based, moderate-progressive think tank, says that he is “cautiously optimistic that the election outcome will remain peaceful,” despite whatever difficulties may yet be faced.

“Obviously there are reports of a significant amount of stuffed ballot boxes,” Morgenstein told IPS. “And there’s obviously the problem that both front-runners declared unilateral victory, with both saying that they think they won a majority, not just a plurality. And so that doesn’t set the stage for a peaceful resolution.”

Yet he also thinks it bodes well that the election itself went smoothly: “As far as I know, there hasn’t been any report of election-related violence that wasn’t Taliban-induced. The election itself went off peacefully,” he said.

U.S. officials have been careful to not publicly back any particular candidate, hoping to ensure as much legitimacy as possible for the new government.

Morgenstein said that while both front-running presidential candidates have their strengths and weaknesses, the outcome of the Afghan election is not what is of ultimate importance to U.S. policymakers.

“We have to keep in mind that our goal doesn’t change; we have to adjust how we’re going to achieve our goal based on who is the new president,” he said.

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