- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 18, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Daily news reports - which inevitably shape international public opinion about Afghanistan’s recent elections - continue to focus on voting irregularities without examining the environment, in which these irregularities actually took place. Objectively analyzed, however, it is easy to conclude that Afghan elections neither took place in Switzerland nor in the State of Florida.

Rather, Aug. 20 in Afghanistan witnessed another day of intense violence including the killing, maiming, kidnapping and intimidating of innocent civilians in an already deteriorating security situation, particularly in those areas where voting irregularities were reported.

As we know, security has been declining in Afghanistan since 2004, when the first presidential elections were conducted in the country. But because the last U.S. administration took its eyes off Afghanistan as early as 2002 and increasingly focused on the Iraq war, indeed, “a war of choice” over a “war of necessity” in Afghanistan, the Taliban and al Qaeda effectively began regrouping in Pakistan, from where they have rapidly expanded their terrorist operations across the border into Afghanistan, in the following years.

Hence, as each year has passed since 2002, the Taliban insurgency has increasingly gained momentum to fill the security and governance gaps in areas of Afghanistan, where the government is either too weak or entirely absent.

This is yet to change because although the international community helped Afghanistan create permanent state institutions by adopting the Bonn Agreement in the wake of the fall of the Taliban in 2001, it has so far failed to implement a well-coordinated and sufficiently resourced strategy to build and enable the post-Taliban Afghan state to govern and defend itself.

Therefore, in the months, weeks and days leading to the elections in August, a fully resurgent Taliban and al Qaeda terrorist alliance had been trying hard to score a strategic victory by preventing the elections from taking place at all. And that is why for the first time in eight years, the commander of International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, highlighted in a comprehensive assessment - leaked in late August - what is most urgently needed to rescue Afghanistan and to disrupt, dismantle and defeat the Taliban and al Qaeda in the region.

But despite the Taliban’s efforts to derail the election process in Afghanistan, the presidential and provincial candidates campaigned hard in the pre-election period, while millions of Afghans braved many threats to their lives and turned out to cast their ballot on Aug. 20.

Some 30 presidential candidates along with some 82 vice-presidential candidates contested the election. We shouldn’t, of course, forget about some 3,195 provincial council candidates, who ran for 420 seats across Afghanistan. Like 2004 and 2005 elections, women actively participated in the election process this year; there were two female presidential candidates and seven vice-presidential candidates running with their male counterparts.

Also, the number of women, challenging provincial council seats, increased by 20 percent compared to the 2004 and 2005 elections.

More important, Afghan presidential and provincial candidates reached beyond their ethnic bases. Candidates with different ethno-sectarian backgrounds focused on issue-based rather than ethnic- or personality-based platforms. And for the first time in our history, the leading candidates took part in a series of Western-style presidential debates to discuss their visions of “change” or “continuity.” Afghans across the country either watched or listened to these important debates, and welcomed this constructive development in the Afghan election politics.

These positive but underreported aspects of the Afghan election notwithstanding, the growing terrorist activities of the Taliban and al Qaeda since 2002, which only intensified on the election day, had intimidated and threatened Afghans enough to ensure a low voter turnout Aug. 20.

As a result, intense violence and insecurity in some areas in the south and east of Afghanistan prevented national and international election observers from monitoring the voting there.

This led to the reported irregularities, which the Afghan Independent Election Commission and the Electoral Complaints Commission subsequently resolved.

Now, turning to what to expect in the critical postelection period, international experience is quite instructive. Indeed, it is clear that holding elections is just a democratic exercise that must happen. What, however, matters the most, in the case of Afghanistan, is the extent to which the international community will firmly commit to a strategic partnership with the country’s postelection leadership to help build, reform, and equip the Afghan security and governance institutions - both on the national and sub-national levels - so that peace and democracy will take root and evolve overtime to become sustainable in Afghanistan.

As far as Afghans are concerned, every recent poll indicates they are unconditionally committed to democratic security and a future with the international community, not with the Taliban again. The United States, Afghanistan and their nation-partners must capitalize on this strategic asset by simply delivering on the basic expectations of the Afghan people.

And those Afghan expectations certainly are not about the overnight transformation of our prewar least-developed and postwar most-destroyed country. But expectations are about the minimum of ensuring a stable Afghanistan that will not serve as a transnational terrorist base again, as it once did in 1990, which unfortunately led to the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001.

M. Ashraf Haidari is the political counselor of the Embassy of Afghanistan.

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