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Gerard Russell

Gerard Russell

Posted: December 21, 2009 04:28 PM

Afghanistan's Elections: How Dr. House Can help

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The fictional Dr. House is no diplomat, as I would judge from watching this brilliant TV series. But he does have one saying that is useful for diplomats to learn. Whenever there are two diagnoses and no way to judge between them, he takes the one which means the patient has a chance. The other option might be more likely, but it also would mean there is nothing he can do to stop the patient dying.

Likewise, in foreign policy. Let's say there are two diagnoses for Afghanistan -- one means it has a chance if we do things right. The other means that there's no hope whatever we do -- withdrawal means a moral defeat but so, ultimately, does staying put. The arguments for hopelessness are set out eloquently here.

Being trained as a diplomat, I'm instinctively drawn to that first diagnosis. In general, I am unashamed to be proposing practical solutions based on the assumption that the situation is not hopeless -- and based on where we are, not where we might want to be or where we might have been.

The Afghan elections might seem a backward-looking, hopeless kind of issue. Because of the UN internal division between Kai Eide and Peter Galbraith being still in the news, though, it's impossible for me to forget it. (I am also reminded of it every time I look at my bank balance, since my unhappiness with that process and its aftermath led me to resign from the UN before I started to receive a stipend from Harvard. And as the poet Juvenal said, integrity is all very well, but it doesn't pay your bills.)

I am happy to pass over the Eide-Galbraith story, which was an unpleasant enough experience at the time without my re-living it here. But the fact that Galbraith has been the only person to have lost his job as a result of the fraud in those elections -- this is not about past history. It's about over $200 million in donor funds that were, in part, misused. This was an Afghan election, an exercise which was rightly led by Afghans (even if the Electoral Commission's head was appointed by one of the candidates, which was always an obvious flaw in the process). But it was also a donor-funded project, and donors have the right -- even the duty -- to verify that taxpayers' money was well spent.

It's also about $100 million or more in donor funds that may be required to fund parliamentary elections next year, in the same circumstances as the 2009 elections. Here's a piece suggesting there are four scenarios for those elections. Having lived through the 2009 experience, I am personally a big advocate of postponing the parliamentary ones. The problems in these elections that have just passed were not just that the IEC was mistrusted by the opposition, nor that over a million votes appear to have been fraudulent, but that many people were afraid to vote. In Zabul province, a remote and dangerous area in the south of Afghanistan, the official turnout was less than 8% of the estimated population, even assuming all those votes were valid. In a constituency-based election this will give ludicrously unrepresentative results. The tiny minority of people who live in the safer areas of Zabul will decide who represents Zabul in Parliament.

But unless action is taken to address the fraud then the problems next year will be even worse than they were this year, because the stakes are very high for some powerful local players in Afghanistan who want to win seats in Parliament. Violence, intimidation and ballot-stuffing are very likely. Even postponement will just defer these issues.

Finally, it's about the relationship of the international community with the Karzai government. It's right for the Afghans to run their own democratic process, but the international community cannot be seen entirely to have backed off in the face of pressure. If a new UN chief comes in to replace Kai Eide in March next year, and immediately tries to put pressure on President Karzai for reforms to the electoral system, then that new UN chief will risk being shut out by Karzai altogether. It has happened before.

The patient is not dead. But it does need urgent treatment. Now that President Karzai is back in the saddle and has chosen his new Ministers, can there please be some pressure for electoral reform: postponing next year's elections, yes, but also investigating and punishing past abuses. And an inventive new look at how to solve the problem of disenfranchisement in the country's insecure areas -- on which I want to write more in a future post.