Afghanistan goes to the polls on Sept. 28. Despite the daily drumbeat of negative headlines, Afghanistan has made great strides in the last decade by any political, economic, or social standards. These elections would allow Afghans to consolidate those gains. The current government mandate ended in May; in other words, the current government has gone into “double overtime.” Given that the peace talks have stalled, it is time for the Afghans to express their views about the future. Elections are the best way to do this.
There have been four presidential and four parliamentary elections since 2004. The average voter turnout is right around 50 percent. In addition, 61 percent of all Afghans are satisfied with democracy in their country. In other words, Afghan citizens believe in the system and they want to vote.
There are, of course, many challenges ahead for these elections to be considered credible and fair. The biggest electoral challenge is security. Since the first presidential election in 2004, military support from NATO forces has significantly declined, leaving security to the Afghan military. The U.S. administration has made it clear that the Afghan government is responsible for this election. The Afghan administration has indeed done that by investing money ($90 million), political will, and security resources in these elections.
The election will be less than perfect, but the fact that such large numbers of Afghans have been willing to participate signals that they believe this is the best way to express their preferences. We need to support the electoral process even as we hold it accountable to international standards.
There are also concerns surrounding who will actually be able to make it to the polls. The Taliban — which has expressed plans to disrupt and derail the elections — has control of some Afghan territory, and there is no way for the Afghan military to provide security in those areas. However, these Taliban controlled areas are sparsely populated, and the majority of Afghans will still have access to the polls.
Another challenge facing the elections is corruption. The U.S. State Department released a statement on Sept. 18 calling on the Afghan government to prepare for credible and fair elections. These concerns are valid, but the United States should continue to provide diplomatic, development, and security support to maximize the chances that the Afghan government can and will ensure credible and fair elections. The Ghani administration has invested in biometric technologies in the hopes of reducing corruption.
U.S. policy makers have been ambiguous about their support for the elections, and this most recent statement by the state department exemplifies that — mainly over concerns that elections would somehow infringe on making progress on achieving peace with the Taliban. The Taliban have refused to recognize the legitimacy of the Afghan government and hoped to create a provisional government through means other than elections. It is important to note that the Taliban has never surpassed a 12 percent approval rating and are rejected by the majority of Afghans.
Given that the peace process has now stalled, the elections are the best way for the Afghan people to express their views about the future of their country.
As Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said in a statement, “it is very important that Afghan national elections proceed as planned.” The UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan also said that “the international community fully supports presidential elections.”
If one candidate does not receive more than 50 percent of the vote, a second round will be held between the top two candidates. This second round would not be until November, which would be the latest time such an election could take place because of the rapidly approaching winter months will make elections very difficult to undertake.
Afghans are willing to risk their lives by going to the polls, and we should support their commitment to democracy.
We should be providing security and should be putting our diplomatic resources behind the elections.
Given that the peace talks have stalled, the election is now the best option. Given that it has been almost six months since the mandate of the current government ended, now is the time for Afghans to choose their new leaders. A new government, formed by these elections, is the appropriate way for the Afghans to chart their own future.