The Afghan elections last Saturday caused more headache for an under pressure Afghan Government and a stretched US military that is desperately seeking an exit by summer of 2011. Violence and reports of fraud have put into doubt the possibility of a stable Afghan government which would allow a US exit.
Rife with reports of heavy rigging and mass fraud, the 2010 parliamentary elections in Afghanistan were viewed internally and externally as a failure – a step backwards rather than forwards. What made the elections worse than the previous three since 2001 was the low turnout, cutting away at the credibility of the Afghan Government and its US backers. As the New York Times reported “The fact that the 3.6 million votes cast on Saturday were the lowest tally of the four elections held since 2001 is a testament to the resurgence of the Taliban insurgency, whose attacks on poll workers and candidates forced more than 1 in 6 polling stations to remain closed”.
The resurgence of the Taliban is an important factor. Saturday showed their growing influence over Afghanistan’s political landscape. An American exit from Afghanistan depends heavily on a stable Afghan government. The Taliban declared that low turnout had rendered the voting meaningless. "The people of Afghanistan did not participate in these elections, and by doing so proved to the invaders and their puppets their disapproval of this fake and rigged process," the group said in a statement posted on its website.
Peter Galbraith, the former deputy UN envoy to Afghanistan, told Al Jazeera that Taliban threats may not be the only reason behind Afghans staying away from the polls. "I think the real reason voters are turned off is they don't feel, rightly, that their votes are going to be counted, so why would you go risk your life in an election you think is going to be stolen anyhow," he said.
In the troubled Helmand province turnout was extremely low. “Inside Lashkar Gah, the capital, most polling stations didn’t even have 150 voters,” said Mohammad Ilyas Dayee, a local reporter. “Outside the city, there is almost no one on the streets.” A pre-election poll showed that only a third of Afghans believed that the elections would be transparent and fair.
Despite the massive shortcomings, the mood in Kabul was upbeat. Afghan President Hamid Karzai termed the elections a success and declared it as "a positive step toward democracy".
The mood in the American camp is rather grim. A soon-to-be-released book, “Obama’s Wars” by veteran reporter, Bob Woodward discloses a series of deep infighting in Washington. The government and the military are at odds with each other over the way and indeed how the Afghan exit strategy itself is panning out. The book quotes the US Special Envoy to Afghanistan, Richard Holbrook as saying that “It can’t work”, and that the White House policy on an Afghanistan exit “didn’t add up”.
The book further discloses a series of deep rifts between the President and the head of US Central Command, Admiral Mike Mullen over how the military and exit strategies involving Afghanistan should proceed. The military is of the view that US forces need to remain in Afghanistan for much longer than 2011. Gen. David Petraeus, Obama’s go-to-man for solving bogged military issues, was also at odds with the President. Petraeus told his own staffers that the administration was "[expletive] with the wrong guy."
Obama is clear as day in Woodward’s upcoming book "I'm not doing long-term nation-building. I am not spending a trillion dollars."
A US exit without a stable government in place (let alone a government that is favorable to the US) by July 2011 is not advisable. The reports of rigging and fraud allegations in the recent election have dealt a major blow to the credibility of the Afghan Government. The reemergence of Taliban all over Afghanistan is a sharp blow to US efforts in the region. There is still much work to be done by the US forces and Afghan government before the possibility of exit even hints at becoming a reality.
At this point in time a US exit does not seem plausible. Later this year, at the Afghan policy review, Obama needs to listen to his Generals and commit to Afghanistan in a way that not only counters the Taliban but also wins public support and stabilizes the government – even if it requires the US to stay in Afghanistan beyond 2011.