Citing a lack of security and international funding, a leading expert on Afghanistan is urging a postponement of elections in the country now scheduled for June. The expert, journalist and author Ahmed Rashid, also stressed during a recent lecture in New York that Bush administration support for authoritarian regimes in Central Asia is damaging the chances for success of Afghanistan's democratization process.
Rashid, speaking February 20 at the Open Society Institute, characterized Afghanistan as "a land-locked country surrounded by enemies." The bulk of the population has yet to experience the benefits of the US-backed stabilization effort that followed the ouster of the Taliban regime in late 2001, he added. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. "For all of 2002 and much of 2003, the United States had a one-track policy: find Osama bin Laden and the Taliban. Nation-building was a low, second priority." Under a political formula known as the Bonn Accord, agreed upon in December 2001, Afghanistan was expected to complete its political transition process by holding simultaneous presidential and parliamentary elections this June.
"The burning question now is, can elections be held in June?" Rashid asked. He went on to assert that a large number of Afghans in the country's governmental and civil society sectors opposed holding elections in June. "Many Afghans don't see the security situation as ready," he said. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. At the same time, he recounted a conversation with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who expressed concern that "defying the June mandate [specified in the Bonn accord] would render his government illegitimate."
The Bush administration appears to strongly favor holding at least presidential elections in June. An American newspaper quoted Zalmay Khalilzad, the Bush administration's ambassador to Afghanistan, as saying on February 18 that postponing elections would trigger a "crisis of legitimacy."
Rashid strongly criticized the US stance, charging that the Bush administration is letting self-interest get in the way of sound policy. "As is the case in Iraq, the [sovereignty] agenda has been set by the American [presidential] election. It's not being set by the realities on the ground," he said.
Disregarding existing conditions and proceeding with the election would "shortchange" Afghans, Rashid said. Over the last six months or so, he continued, a greater international emphasis on reconstruction had started to foster hope for Afghans. He specifically cited several projects to disarm Afghan militia groups and improve the country's shattered infrastructure. "Big money is going to education, health care and road building he said. "There is a lot of good that's finally starting to happen."
This process would "come to a grinding halt" if officials carry out plans for a nationwide election in June. To promote a secure environment for the holding of elections, US officials have discussed the possibility of hastily creating a so-called Afghan Guard, Rashid said. This would mean "rebuilding militias," thus undermining a United Nations-sponsored disarmament program that seeks to neutralize warlords' power in Afghanistan's provinces, he asserted.
"Do you think militias won't intimidate Afghans before the elections?" Rashid asked. "Of course, they will."
Rashid also cited a lack of funding as necessitating a postponement. "The elections are expected to cost $100 million, yet not a penny has been allocated" by the international community, Rashid said. He added that it would be unwise to decouple the presidential and parliamentary elections, an option apparently favored by some in the Bush administration. He argued that holding a presidential election while postponing a parliamentary vote would be destabilizing. Postponing the elections one year would not endanger the Karzai government's legitimacy, Rashid contended. "That would give programs an extra year to take hold," he said.
Rashid proposed that the UN should assuming "the onus of postponement" by making the formal announcement at a March donors' conference in Berlin. He argued that the international body could shield Karzai from accusations of power-grabbing and enable Bush administration officials to take political cover. Rashid summarized the argument this way: "we're sorry [it took so long,] but we're doing really good work."
The chances of such a scenario unfolding, however, appear slim. "When I put [my case] to American officials," said Rashid, "the American argument was: well, if we delay, this will be seen as a victory for al Qaeda."
Not only is the US determination to hold elections in June endangering Afghanistan's stabilization prospects, the Bush administration's tolerance of authoritarian regimes in Central Asian states is creating a hostile environment for Afghanistan's democratization process, Rashid said
Since the September 11 terrorism tragedy, the United States has forged stronger strategic ties with Central Asian states. US military forces are now stationed at bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, providing support for on-going anti-terrorism operations in Afghanistan. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Concurrent with the expansion of the US strategic presence in Central Asia, regional rulers have clamped down in their respective countries, often citing terrorism concerns in an effort to neutralize legitimate domestic political opposition and restrict basic human rights, in particular freedom of speech. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archives.]
"All [Central Asian states] are more repressive today than before 9/11," Rashid stated, adding that this was a "poor reflection" on US regional policy. He suggested that the US tolerance for despotic practices was fanning discontent in Central Asia, thus abetting the efforts of Islamic radicals there to expand their support base.
A "far more nuanced" US policy towards Central Asia is "desperately needed" to reverse the existing negative trends in the region, Rashid said.
Ahmed Rashid is a Pakistani journalist who has covered Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia for 25 years. He is the author of two best-selling books on the region Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia and Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia. Mr. Rashid is also a founder of the Open Media Fund for Afghanistan.