Will U.S. abandon Afghanistan?

“I will not vote, these elections are not worth anything, the candidates are the same people who destroyed Afghanistan,” thunders the taxi driver as we jolt down Kabul’s streets. Campaign posters for the upcoming National Assembly and Provincial Council elections on Sept. 18 blanket every non-moving object.

Suddenly, a thought struck him: “If I do vote, I will vote for a woman! They do not have blood on their hands.” Hopefully, such revolutionary ideas will occur to many other voters in Afghanistan. Hopefully, they will feel confident enough in the secrecy of the ballot to exercise true choice and secure enough amidst an ongoing insurgency in the south and east to make it to the polling booth in the first place.ÅA

Election preparations have been at full steam for six months now, with more than 12 million voters enrolled and 5,800 candidates, 582 of them women. Ballot papers are a vision in color, featuring a picture and symbol for each candidate to aid illiterate voters.

Weighing more than 1,000 tons, they are now making their way by helicopter, plane, truck, donkey and camel out to 6,000 polling centers across the country.

But despite such impressive technical preparations for these $159 million polls, there are wider concerns about both the framework of the elections and the viability of the institutions they will ultimately create.

The concern most immediately apparent to Afghans, such as our taxi driver, is the lack of a robust vetting system to bar candidates implicated in years of atrocities and drug trafficking. Indeed, the failure of the Karzai administration and his international backers to tackle head-on the perpetrators of past atrocities has led to a culture of impunity, with many of the same people back in power today and now seeking the mantle of a democratic mandate.

The U.N. Office of Drug Control reported at the end of August that Afghanistan produced 87 percent of the world’s opium for the second year in a row. It also urged the removal of corrupt governors and officials involved in the drug trade, barring parliamentary candidates with drug ties, and “zero tolerance” toward warlords’ involvement in drug trafficking. The latter recommendation has yet to be acted upon by the administration and Coalition forces who argue they are fighting against a still virulent insurgency. Yet, the drug trade is financing Taliban insurgent operations.

The fact that, in what became a highly politicized vetting process, only 32 candidates were barred for retaining links to armed groups has added to local disillusionment.

An inappropriate voting system, the rarely used single non-transferable voting and a political framework hostile to political parties mean these elections are being fought on ethnicity and individuals rather than ideas. In turn, the democratic bodies to emerge are likely to be fractured and weak with no workable caucuses or groupings on which to build a robust political culture.

However, above all these concerns are fears the international community may see these elections widely touted as the end of the transitional process agreed to in Bonn in December 2001 as a time to downgrade commitments to Afghanistan.

It is absolutely imperative that these elections are viewed as the beginnings of democratization, not the end. Afghanistan is still at a perilously fragile stage. This vote will provide the trappings of a democratic state, but there is still little in the way of institutions or resources to exert true control.

The ongoing insurgency in the south and east has been bloodier this summer than at any time since the fall of the Taliban, including the killing of six candidates and even more election workers. Ordinary Afghans continue to suffer some of the lowest social indicators in the world: life expectancy is 45; a woman dies in childbirth every 30 minutes; and illiteracy is running at 70 percent. The Bonn process was about tight deadlines for political transition. The momentum created in this sphere now needs to be used to push forward in other areas.

Previous lessons about the consequences of abandoning Afghanistan should be fresh in everyone’s mind. Now, more than three-and-a-half years after the fall of the Taliban, the growing sense of discontent on the streets of Afghanistan is palpable. If Afghanistan is allowed to slip back into being a failed state because the international community turns away after elections, that sense of discontent will be the country’s major export.

Joanna Nathan is senior analyst in Kabul for the International Crisis Group, an NGO. Mark Schneider is the ICG’s senior vice president and directs its Washington office.

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