- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 28, 2004

Holding both presidential and parliamentaryelectionsin Afghanistan in June appears to be unachievable, even if U.N., U.S. and NATO officials were to work at breakneck speed to prepare for the votes. Holding a presidential vote in August or September and parliamentary elections in the spring of 2005 looks more practical. But it would also probably require a shift in U.S. strategy. A general lack of security due to banditry and terrorism complicates the ability of Afghans to register for a vote and to eventually cast their ballots. A Taliban commander has made the risks more explicit by threatening to kill any Afghans who participate in the process.

Afghanistan turned an important corner by ratifying a constitution. The document unfortunately grants excessive powers to the executive — a power dynamic far removed from the country’s realities. But studies and polls demonstrate that other aspects of the constitution could be good for Afghanistan.

So far only 8 percent of about 11 million eligible voters in Afghanistan have registered to vote. This is partly due to winter snow and ice. But it also results from the small number of registration posts that the United Nations has set up. While some of this delay can be attributed to bureaucratic inefficiencies, U.N. workers have also cited valid security concerns. Gen. James Jones, NATO’s top commander, wants mobile military units, known as Provincial Reconstruction Teams, to help provide security for the registration of voters. These reconstruction teams have been invaluable in establishing the stability that has been achieved thus far. Mr. Jones’ suggestion seems on target.

But where will the troops come from? The reconstruction teams that have already been deployed are already challenged. If elections are to be held, opportunities for terrorist assaults will likely increase, given the number of people assembling for registration and voting. It is difficult to imagine how the current level of troops would be sufficient.

Surely some security can be established through cooperation with and courting of tribal leaders. But troops in Afghanistan probably need a better enforcement capability if elections are to be successfully held. The United States currently has about 7,000 to 8,000 troops in Afghanistan, while NATO has about 5,000 and Britain 2,000. Failures to stabilize Afghanistan would undermine NATO’s stature, a concern NATO officials have repeatedly voiced. The Bush administration might make foreign deployments more likely by pledging to provide rapid-reaction air cover and other support to foreign troops in trouble. U.S. officials have been reticent to provide this kind of support for a variety of reasons, but the holding of elections would strain troops in new ways. On a more positive note, U.S. officials have wisely changed some military tactics in Afghanistan. American troops are now being deployed to Afghan villages, where they live with locals and try to glean fresh intelligence. Previously, troops conducted counter-terror sweeps and then withdrew back to bases.

As for Afghanistan’s still nascent legal structure, the picture is mixed, but some aspects look particularly attractive now. Some observers have criticized the observanceofIslamictenetsin Afghanistan’s constitution. But drafting an Afghan constitution in America’s secular image would probably have been a mistake, and Afghanistan’s approach may provide a model for much of the Islamic world. A recent survey by the Middle East Research Institute in Beirut found that among 18- to 55-year-old Muslims in 32 countries in North America, Europe, Africa and the Middle East, support for modernist Islamists (defined as those who believe in the compatibility of Islam and democracy) is higher than support for either secular liberals or radical Islamists.

And though the media has taken aim at the United States for the remaining inequities between men and women in Afghanistan, a study this month by Marina Ottaway of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace demonstrates that the strengthening of woman’s rights tends to be a lengthy process. While this is still a goal to be pursued, Mrs. Ottaway states: “New laws do not change social attitudes instantaneously; indeed, in some cases they make the conservative element more combative, but in the long run they help create more opportunities for women.”

By the same token, observers of the electoral process should keep their expectations in context. While a deeply flawed election would be worse than none at all, a merely acceptable result would constitute a rousing success in Afghanistan. Since parliamentary elections will probably be held some months after the presidential one, Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai should announce soon his intention to convene a loya jirga to negotiate or at least ratify a plan on how those legislative elections will be held. Such a move will help clarify the still ambiguous mechanics of the process, and reinforce the notion that the elections are soon in coming.

Holding elections in Afghanistan this summer and next spring will be challenging. But is not a mission impossible if the parties involved demonstrate flexibility in their tactical thinking and a commitment to cooperation.

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