With the Afghan elections having taken place today amidst extraordinarily difficult circumstances, I thought I would offer up a few things to keep in mind when reading the coverage:
You go to Afghanistan with the elections you have, not the elections you wish you had. Given the escalating violence, reports of corruption and vote-rigging, and evidence of the Afghan government's lack of capacity, many observers have asked: "Why even have the elections in the first place?" As news of violence and possible fraud flows in, I expect more and more will question the wisdom of holding elections at this time. I think the simple, if not entirely satisfying, answer is that there really are no alternatives. Afghanistan's electoral commission has already suspended the elections once, a decision in conflict with the country's constitution. To do so again, via a state of emergency or something along those lines, would be a disaster; Think back to Pakistan in 2007, when ruler Pervez Musharraf instituted marshal law following a contested election. The country is still recovering from that crisis. As the International Crisis Group noted in their report on Afghanistan's elections, opening the polls today is simply the "least bad option."
Security before all else. Evaluating the overall security climate in Afghanistan has so far been a Sisyphean effort. Just ask Tony Cordesman. Today's elections are likely to give as complete a picture as possible of the country's security. It isn't likely to be pretty. A months-long campaign of intimidation and escalating violence has culminated with high-profile attacks on Kabul days before the election. Early reports show the attacks continuing unabated. Already there have been several bombings in the capital, as well as rocket attacks in Kandahar, and Lashkar Gah. These attacks reveal what a daunting mission lies before NATO-ISAF commander Gen. McChrystal and his team, as they begin operationalizing the strategy laid out by the Obama administration.
Legitimacy, Legitimacy, Legitimacy. Nothing is more critical to the outcome of these elections than that Afghans perceive them as legitimate. This is what makes the incoming reports of fraud and vote-tampering so troubling. If there is good reason to question the validity of the results, the country could slide even deeper into political paralysis. Ahmed Rashid explained in a CFR interview: "Political stability needs legitimacy, and a legitimate government is central to that." Whether the elections are viewed as legitimate also has profound implications for the Obama administration. In a piece for the Windy, Spencer did a nice job of laying out what's at stake:
It's not the morning, but the morning after. Believe it or not, the post-election period may be even more challenging than pulling off the elections themselves. CAP's Brian Katulis, who is on the ground assisting in the monitoring effort for Democracy International, analyzed the very real possibility of an uncertain outcome, and how that could drive instability:
Some worries exist about possible post-election violence over provincial election results too. In meetings DI election observers had in Jalalabad over the last few days, for example, residents expressed worries about possible post-election violence between three main tribal families running different candidates."
Now about that governing business... As difficult as the elections have been, and as critical as they are to the country's future, they are still a prelude to a much tougher, more decisive period awaiting Afghanistan. To this point, most of the work done by the Obama administration and the Afghan government has been almost entirely focused on creating the security conditions necessary for the elections, distracting from the new, more balanced policy that is supposed to be implemented. The existing effort has gained considerable momentum over the last few months, but it's not really calibrated for the problems Afghanistan faces. Therefore, If the administration's strategy is to succeed, as Alex Thier cautions, the next challenge for the U.S. and Afghan governments will be to act quickly to wrest the mission out of the current track, and re-orient it toward increasing government effectiveness and accountability, drawing on existing institutions, rather than building an Afghan state from scratch.