Afghanistan’s presidential elections are this Thursday, August 20. AP calls it the "first major test" of the administration’s counterinsurgency strategy:
It’s not about who wins the election, the White House says. Rather the voting is a test of the ability of U.S. forces to protect civilians — the new top military priority — and the willingness of voters to accept that help. The success of the revised strategy depends on winning the trust of civilians. U.S. officials stress that the elections are being run by Afghans, hoping the country will embrace the results as homegrown rather than the result of foreign fixers. However, that could leave the Afghan government holding the bag if voters see the results as illegitimate.
"Most people think President Karzai is going to win the election. Not a lot of people think the election is going to be fair," said David Kilcullen, a counterinsurgency expert and incoming adviser to the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan.
"One of the things I think we’re going to see after the 20th of August is President Karzai returning to power but with substantially reduced legitimacy. You may actually see a spike of violence after the election as people react to that."
Here’s what I’ll be watching for:
1. Does violence increase?
This summer has proven deadly for US and NATO troops, and sources see a rise in pre-election violence. Will Taliban strikes push death counts even higher on election day and beyond?
2. How does the voting go?
Even before we get to the issue of fraud, we need to ask who gets to vote in the first place. I’ll be watching to see whether violence forces closures of polling stations, and whether women and rural Afghans turn out. Additionally, it will be important to see whether voting is heavily disrupted in provinces like Helmand.
Turning to the question of fraud, I think that speaks for itself. Reports of fraud will damage the credibility of the election and of Karzai. The opposition is almost sure to claim fraud, so pay careful attention to what international observers say.
3. Does the election go to a second round?
Two-round election systems have caused problems in Iran and Mauritania this summer. Two-round systems may be fairer in some ways than our system, but in many cases they create anticipation that the sheer number of challengers will deny the incumbent a first-round win, forcing a run-off where a united opposition can knock the incumbent out. When incumbents win in the first round, then, the opposition cries foul and protests begin.
Anticipation is already building that Karzai will have to face a run-off in Afghanistan. That suggests some dangerous possibilities: either a first-round win denounced as illegitimate, or another stretch of campaigning and voting that could produce more violence.
4. How does the international community react to the outcome?
If violence surges in the period around the elections, keep an eye on Britain and other European countries with troops in Afghanistan. Mounting casualty counts are drawing angry scrutiny from the public in Britain, Germany, and elsewhere. More deaths may increase calls for European withdrawal.
5. How does the outcome affect strategic thinking in Washington?
The logic can go either way, right? For proponents of escalation, a successful election will demonstrate that the current strategy is succeeding, while electoral chaos will demonstrate the need for more troops. For opponents of escalation, electoral chaos will demonstrate the foolhardiness of escalation – and of the nation-building project in general – while success would simply provide another reason to leave Afghanistan to the Afghans. So far as future US strategy is concerned, the question may be not who is right, but who can present their case more effectively.
Stay tuned. I anticipate a bumpy ride, and one that will likely not end on Thursday.