With parliamentary elections scheduled for October, Afghanistan has the opportunity to bring moderate members of the Taliban into the government and take an important step towards achieving long-term peace. The same elections, however, could upend the fragile coalition currently ruling the country and open the door for even greater conflict. The next months will require careful diplomacy on all sides to make sure elections don’t upend any hopes for peace.
This week Afghanistan’s Independent Electoral Commission began the voter registration drive for the parliamentary elections it announced would be held on October 20, 2018, after a delay of three years. This comes at a moment when the Afghan government and the Taliban are closer to real negotiations than they have been in more than a decade. Having peace talks and preparing for elections simultaneously raises some important questions, such as whether the Taliban would be willing to participate and whether the international community would support such participation. Answering these questions correctly, could move Afghanistan closer to peace, but also threaten to upend the progress that has been made.
Elections as a Part of the Peace
One of the challenges of negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban is the fact that there is no clear agreement on what an end state might look like. Would the Taliban really be interested in coming into the current government? Would the government cede control, in some sense, of certain parts of the country to the Taliban? Both seem unlikely.
More importantly, the current power sharing arrangement in the National Unity Government between Ashraf Ghani, the Pashtun president, and Abdullah Abdullah, the chief executive officer, perceived by many as representing the minority groups in the country, is tenuous. Giving the Taliban seats at the table necessarily means giving up chairs from political figures who are loath to yield the power they have acquired in recent years. An election will be a reset for the country, allowing more proportionate representation of government resources to the various factions that will be necessarily part of any long-term Afghan government.
The only real recent model for reintegration of insurgent groups in Afghanistan is the deal brokered between the government and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, leader of the Hizb-i-Islami party. While Hekmatyar followers have largely joined with the current government, this cost a significant amount, both in resources and in terms of political sharing. The Taliban is far bigger than Hizb-i-Islami, with far more support among certain communities of ordinary Afghans. This will make the process much more challenging.
This is why timely elections could serve as an important vehicle for reintegrating certain, particularly lower-level Taliban leaders. Parliamentary elections would give communities the opportunity to choose figures that represent their values. They are also likely to have a moderating force. During the ongoing war, insurgent leaders with the most radical rhetoric have benefited from the polarizing nature of the war. In an election, to win over the more moderate parts of the population, it is likely that more moderate Taliban leaders will see their influence increase at the expensive of their more recalcitrant colleagues. This will further weaken those Taliban factions who are the least willing to work towards peace.
The Threat Posed by Elections
While the upcoming elections pose a real opportunity for those working towards peace in Afghanistan, elections in the country have rarely been smooth affairs. While the initial presidential election in 2004 saw high turnout, the number of voters has decreased in recent years as complaints about fraud and corruption have grown exponentially.
Most recently, the disputed 2014 election resulted in the largest recount ever overseen by the United Nations. With allies of Ghani and Abdullah threatening to pull out and fears growing of an even wider civil war, then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry brokered a deal between the two. The deal still holds today. Barely.
Part of the persisting problems have been local leaders, such as former governor Atta Mohammad Noor, who threatened to pull out of the arrangement, which is already of questionable constitutionality. There is a feeling among many minority groups that the government has not been protecting them and attacks on Shia Hazara have particularly increased. This has made Ghani and other leaders spend more time ensuring that their own allies remain loyal to them, while leaving them little time to reach out to the Taliban or other insurgent groups. A new round of voting could upend this delicate balance entirely if certain groups, such as minorities, women or young people feel excluded, and if the massive fraud from the last round of voting is repeated.
This is where the peace process and elections can help each other. More inclusive peace talks, bringing together groups for all corners of Afghanistan’s diverse society could pave the way for a new generation of leadership, attempting to move past thirty-five years of conflict. The international community is in a position to provide valuable technical and political help. A vow from the U.S. government and its allies to financially assist only a legitimate government created through transparent elections, could provide important pressure on various groups to participate.
This will demand some delicate diplomacy. Many Afghan leaders are playing a short-term game, desperately trying to maintain their positions rather than invest in the country long term. The U.S. and its allies continue to have a key role to play in moderating ongoing negotiations and can provide vital security guarantees and incentives to bring different groups to the table.
While few outside of Afghanistan have paid much attention to local elections in the country, how the upcoming polls fit in with peace negotiations could determine much whether the U.S. and its allies will be able to bring their troops home without the threat of state collapse.
Noah Coburn is a political anthropologist at Bennington College. He has spent the last decade conducting research in Afghanistan, include working for the United States Institute of Peace during the election of 2009, 2010 and 2014. He conducted research on the last four rounds of election in Afghanistan and is co-author of Derailing Democracy in Afghanistan: Elections in an Unstable Political Landscape, with Anna Larson. He is also author of Bazaar Politics and Under Contract: The Invisible Workers of America’s Global Wars.