Afghanistan is making progress despite major challenges

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Afghanistan is making progress despite major challenges

The recent parliamentary elections in Afghanistan are another reminder of how difficult state building is. This is especially true in an underdeveloped country like Afghanistan, which has been plagued by decades of war. But the shortcomings shown during the elections should not be seen as proof of failure by the international community. 

There were the obvious problems with election security: One-third of polling stations were unable to open, while 10 districts had no voting at all. And, due to the high-profile assassination of the powerful and controversial police chief Gen. Abdul Raziq, Kandahar Province only voted last weekend — a week later than the rest of the country. Ghazni Province still has not voted due to a lasting dispute over how to map out voting precincts to achieve better ethnic representation. An estimated 36 people have been killed and another 130 wounded due to election-related violence.

But it was not all doom and gloom. Considering the circumstances, the elections were not very bad. Even with the heightened tensions following Raziq’s assassination, there were no security incidents in Kandahar during the vote. Across the country, an eagerness for democratic participation was shown by the high voter turnout — far higher than many expected. Some Afghans had to wait hours in line to vote. An impressive 2,500 candidates competed for 250 seats. It is true that 10 districts did not have any voting but, with 407 districts, this represents only 2 percent of the country’s total. 

These security challenges were to be expected in a country in the midst of an insurgency. 

Many emerging democracies suffer from election day violence. Just look at India, which enjoys the title of the “world’s largest democracy.” During last May’s local elections in the Indian state of West Bengal, several people were killed and dozens more wounded in a series of attacks on polling stations, which included a car bomb. Elections in the state of Jammu and Kashmir will have to take place over a period of four weeks in November and December this year due to the security situation there. 

In terms of the long-term viability of Afghanistan’s governance, the country has bigger problems than the recent elections. While the National Unity Government brought hope for political stability in the wake of the controversial 2014 presidential election, it is clear that a breakdown in trust and communication between President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah is having a significant impact on Afghanistan’s political progress. 

The international community must avoid measuring success in Afghanistan by the number of people who turn out to vote or the percentage of polling stations that are open during any given election.

Luke Coffey

Exacerbating these political challenges are some fundamental flaws in the Afghan constitution, which was written in 2004. For example, giving the president the right to appoint provincial governors, instead of them being selected or elected locally, goes against the decentralized nature of Afghan governance dating back centuries. 

In addition, the use of the single non-transferable vote to elect the members of the House of the People (the lower house in the bicameral legislature) in a country like Afghanistan presents problems. Since it is a deeply tribal country with many different ethnic and societal groups (some of which, like females and Kuchi nomads, are elected on a quota system), the single non-transferable vote has created situations where candidates can win a seat with less than 10 percent of the total vote. While the results of the most recent elections will not be known for some time, it is likely similar incidents will occur. 

Sadly, there seems to be little appetite — by either the international community or the Afghan elite — to start a meaningful debate about amending the constitution or reopening electoral law. So, even if elections in Afghanistan took place in a violence-free environment, they would likely have little impact on the country’s governance until these systemic problems with the constitution are addressed. 

There are many who will use the recent elections as “proof” that the international community has failed in Afghanistan, but this is not the case. The international community must avoid measuring success in Afghanistan by the number of people who turn out to vote or the percentage of polling stations that are open during any given election. Instead of measuring success against unrealistic expectations, we should start measuring success by progress that is made on the ground — however minor it might be. 

It is time to be realistic about Afghanistan. For the near future, there will be an insurgency in some form in the Pashtun heartland. The next presidential election in 2019 will be as fraught as the last one in 2014. However, it is also realistic to say that, even with the challenges, Afghanistan is making progress in the right direction. 

It has a long way to go, but the situation for the average Afghan is far better than during the Soviet invasion in the 1980s or the civil war and Taliban control of the 1990s. 

  • Luke Coffey is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy at the Heritage Foundation. Twitter: @LukeDCoffey
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