Ballots Not Bullets for Afghanistan

On August 20, Afghanistan holds only the second election in its long and often turbulent history. For its own people, this is a historic event. For the many nations helping Afghanistan with troops and aid, it is a critical watershed.

Elections held in a conflict zone are always far more difficult, and the enemies of Afghanistan's freedom and democracy are now far more active and dangerous than they were in 2004 when the first election was held.

In these circumstances, the elections were postponed as a result of decisions taken last year, and rescheduled after a near-political crisis for August 20. The international community, led by the UN and NATO, is supporting these elections with a substantial amount of resources, including international observers, hundreds of millions of dollars, and additional troops.

The goal is clear: whoever governs Afghanistan for the next five years must derive authority and power from the consent of the governed. That means an election that is accepted as legitimate, fair and open. In any election, including our own, there are obvious advantages to incumbency, but in a fair election, there should be constraints on the exercise of those advantages. We have just seen the consequences of abuse of this principle in Afghanistan's western neighbor.

President Obama has set into place a new strategy for Afghanistan with a significantly increased level of support. Others countries from Europe to the Gulf to Japan and China have increased their commitments to Afghanistan.

Some people have charged that our efforts, and statements by the United States and other nations, constitute improper interference in the election. This is nonsense. Our "interference" is merely a necessary involvement to ensure a free and fair election on a level playing field. This is done, at considerable rush and expense, at the request of the Afghan government and under a clear UN mandate.

We will neither favor nor oppose any individual candidate. But as the campaign proceeds, we, along with our allies, will speak out from time to time on the process - and the process only. What follows is a view by Ambassador Time Carney, the head of the special U.S. team assigned to assist in the elections.

-- Ambassador Richard C. Holbrooke

Elections provide an opportunity to transform an aspiration for a better future into a reality. We Americans seized the opportunity of our elections on November 4. This August, our partners, the people of Afghanistan, will follow suit as they go to the polls to select a new President and representatives for their 34 Provincial Councils.

Success in Afghanistan depends on Afghans having a government that has been chosen in a manner that is widely accepted as reflecting the electorate's desires: a government that derives its authority from the people; takes their needs into account; offers the best vision for the future; and delivers on its promises. If Afghans believe their government can ensure their basic needs are met, then they will not support those who seek to undermine it through force and intimidation. Above all, an election confers legitimacy on those elected, provided it is accepted by the electorate as just, fair, and open.

That is why we are encouraging the Presidential candidates - 41 in all - to describe their vision of the future of Afghanistan, set out their platforms, and explain their programs. Afghans are telling the candidates they want what humans the world over crave: jobs and economic opportunities, security for themselves and their families, justice and education, and an accountable government. These should be at the heart of the campaign.

The new President will need to be skilled in delivering all of these things, including reintegrating back into society those insurgents who have renounced violence and want to be part of the solution. They will have the full support of the international community, backed by the United Nations, as they vote.

But the elections process in this fledgling democracy is challenging. Free and fair elections are not always easy to achieve, even in established democracies, including - at times - our own. In Afghanistan, a realistic benchmark is that they are credible, secure and inclusive.

Afghanistan's complexities must not daunt its friends or - more importantly - its people. Many Afghans, for example, still broadly believe the United States endorses the incumbent, despite public statements of impartiality. Our President's statement on the first day of election campaigning on June 16 made clear the U.S. does not support or oppose any particular Presidential or Provincial Council candidate. Ambassador Eikenberry, in Kabul, has repeated this point in words and actions. The international community, including the United States, supported extending Hamid Karzai's term until the next President is inaugurated, in order to preserve stability in a war-time situation, and this reflected the preference of most of the authorities and political class, but it did not indicate a preference among the candidates.

Afghans will need to find both our words and our deeds credible. That is the primary purpose of the inter-agency team I run in Afghanistan: to support the United Nations and the Afghan electoral institutions to deliver an impartial process. While no elections are ever perfect, our priority is to help the Afghan election authorities and the UN deliver access to transport for candidates so they can campaign across the country; access to the media so they can set out what they stand for; and access to security to ensure the candidates feel safe to campaign.

We are actively supporting the establishment of comprehensive audit processes to limit potential fraud from bogus registration cards and polling staff collusion. We are supporting the Afghan national civic education campaign on the electoral process and election safeguards. And our civilian and military staff will be monitoring the processes and raising any issues of concern.

The elections, therefore, are a potential milestone of political progress. But what comes afterwards also matters: the willingness of the people to hold their governments to account through their nascent civil society structures - and the ability of that government to respond to the will of its people.

In the end, perfect elections themselves are not the lynchpin of a stronger democracy. Over the past 40 years working on elections throughout the world, I've seen fraud in South Vietnam, aborted counts and jailed opposition in Lesotho, hope and participation in Cambodia, complicated, politically-charged results in Haiti, and joy and reconciliation met with universal approbation in South Africa. And we have the dramatic - but hardly democratic - situation in Iran today - a role model we must avoid. What matters is that people regard and accept the process and the results as being credible, secure and inclusive. Only then can a government attain legitimacy.

"Ballots are the rightful and peaceful successors to bullets." So said our 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln. He could have equally been talking about Afghanistan in 2009. This is an opportunity for Afghan leaders to listen to the calls of the Afghan people, who want their views to be heard through peaceful means.

The U.S. will be there, in partnership and in friendship, with the Afghan people.

Retired Ambassador Tim Carney has spent 42 years in foreign affairs, mainly in areas of conflict and transition. He is at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul leading a U.S. Interagency Electoral Support Team to assist the UN family and our allies help Afghan independent election authorities realize a credible, secure and inclusive electoral process.