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Afghanistan holds elections Saturday. Here’s what to know about its democratic process.

This election could enable the Afghan state to better serve its citizens and hold space against extremism for the international community.

- September 26, 2019

Afghanistan will hold its fourth presidential election Saturday. But electoral competition and peace do not go hand-in-hand in war-torn countries, according to experts — and some argue that now is not the time for this vote.

Despite these warnings, the Afghan government is moving ahead. For all the dangers at hand, a free and fair election would advance the state-building project promised by Afghanistan’s domestic leaders and foreign patrons. It could also revitalize U.S. efforts toward a credible peace deal.

In most civil wars, even internationalized ones, the conflict can be distilled to a fight between the government and the insurgents. But the Taliban frame their struggle as one with the United States, while the United States entered the fight on account of al-Qaeda. As a result, the Afghan government’s own priorities have often been marginalized.

Some Afghans feared that their fledgling democracy might be trampled on the way to a deal that delivered what both the Americans and the Taliban seek: a U.S. withdrawal. While most Afghans see peace as urgently necessary, many are also determined to protect and build upon the governing principles and processes their country embraced after 2001. This election could enable the Afghan state to better serve its citizens and hold space against extremism for the international community.

The value of elections

Afghanistan held its first presidential election just 15 years ago. And past contests — in 2004, 2009 and 2014 — revealed the challenges of immature democratic politics. But elections also did the work of reminding the country’s fractious strongmen, who historically grabbed at power through violent conflict, that their imperfect democracy was the best bet in town.

My research shows that new incentives encouraged these strongmen to engage alongside tribal leaders, civic activists and village elders in the kinds of (mostly) peaceful bargaining associated with democratic politics. For all of their disagreements today, these elites remain demonstrably invested in the new order.

Elections also afford ordinary citizens the chance to register their particular political preferences. The very act of casting a ballot signals to insurgents, foreign sponsors of extremism and supportive donor countries alike a popular commitment to democracy.

Challenges to the system

President Ashraf Ghani’s government has long made clear that Saturday’s election is its highest priority, but this enthusiasm should not be confused for a popular mandate. Instead, the election may be its last chance to re-establish authority amid growing liabilities — from the government’s micromanaging impulse to the creeping ethnicization of politics and the ubiquity of high-level decision-makers whose multiple passports afford them freedom to exit if facts on the ground worsen. Most fundamentally, this administration has not protected its constituents from the relentless devastation of war, with an estimated average of 74 deaths per day last month.

A wartime election will privilege the preferences of urban citizens with access to (more) secure polling stations than their rural counterparts. Absent a clean contest, the very mechanism meant to legitimize the Afghan administration will secure its reputation as a government incapable of delivering either peace or democracy. Worse, serious election fraud will undermine the Afghan state’s credibility in the eyes of its people. Likewise, elites may lose patience with a system that does not reward their participation.

The prime contender seeking to unseat the incumbent is Abdullah Abdullah, President Ghani’s ostensible partner in the National unity government. Abdullah lost to Hamid Karzai in 2009 and Ghani in 2014 and accused each of wide-scale fraud. In both cases, some American cajoling helped to prevent the slide from a political fight to a militant one.

This time around, there is no guarantee that Abdullah’s team, other candidates or those powerful politicos — including former president Karzai — who claim to prefer a peace process over a vote will accept an opponent’s clearly fraudulent win without a fight. Beyond the risk of intra-elite violence, this scenario would benefit the Taliban, affording them leverage at any future negotiating table. And the United States will lose a chance to scale back its presence with some confidence that things won’t fall apart the day after.

Looking ahead and the U.S. role

The Trump administration has made its impatience with America’s longest war clear, but it remains engaged in Afghan politics. Earlier this month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the U.S. government expects “a credible and transparent presidential election.” Then he announced that the U.S. government would reclaim $160 million in aid on account of widespread corruption.

These are important signals to Kabul that the White House is paying attention and still links American national security to Afghan governance, perhaps recognizing a credible election as the opening to a new, less burdensome chapter in U.S.-Afghan relations.

As the fatigue around U.S. engagement deepens, some argue that American efforts have done little good and that a swift U.S. exit from Afghanistan is imperative. But an academic conference in the summer suggested otherwise, gathering scholars from leading universities from around the world. Debate centered on a range of topics, from the changing nature of military intervention after 9/11 to the role of female elites in anti-colonial movements. While hardly unusual in academic circles, this gathering took place in Kabul, and was hosted by Afghan professors and students. Beyond the gates of the university lay west Kabul. Once crowded with the carcasses of bullet-riddled buildings, this neighborhood hosts shops selling graduation gowns alongside buzzing coffeehouses.

It is also the site of some of the worst attacks in recent memory. In fact, hours after the conference’s first day concluded, a suicide bomb ripped through a wedding hall just down the road, killing more than 60 guests. That day — Aug. 17 — perfectly captured the paradox of life in Afghanistan, where devastation follows quickly on the heels of delight, and stunning progress confronts threats at every turn.

On Saturday, those Afghans who cast their vote will test the proposition that participating in their young democracy can move it one step closer to secure, accountable governance.

Dipali Mukhopadhyay is an associate professor of international and public affairs at Columbia University and the author of “Warlords, Strongman Governors and the State in Afghanistan.”