UNITED NATIONS – With battle-scarred Iraq in shambles, the United States is now trying to showcase war-ravaged Afghanistan as a potentially vibrant multi-party democracy on the road to political success, say UN diplomats and Afghan experts.
"[U.S. President George W.] Bush desperately needs an international success story for his reelection in November," a South Asian diplomat told IPS.
"And despite the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan, the White House is determined to ensure that the upcoming presidential elections in Kabul will take place in October as scheduled," he added.
But UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and several experts on Afghanistan are warning that the credibility of the upcoming elections could be in doubt unless there is a significant improvement in security for the 9.9 million Afghans who have registered to vote.
"The security situation in Afghanistan is volatile, having seriously deteriorated in certain parts of the country," says Annan.
"The challenges are formidable, not only in terms of creating conditions for free and fair elections but also in terms of creating the tools of governance that will enable the future elected bodies to exert their authority effectively," said Annan in a 20-page report due to be discussed by the UN Security Council next week.
After several postponements prompted mostly by security concerns and lack of voter registrations the government of President Hamid Karzai in Kabul decided to hold presidential elections Oct. 9 and parliamentary elections in April 2005.
"To ensure the conditions for free and fair elections, however, a net increase in international security assistance remains indispensable," says Annan’s report.
But Afghan experts say that despite that plea, increased security may not be forthcoming because of the reluctance of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to risk its troops in an increasingly hostile environment characterized by roadside bombs and suicide attacks.
NATO is a military alliance of 26 European nations, the United States and Canada.
"Kofi Annan, Hamid Karzai and most of the non-governmental organizations [NGOs] have been pleading with NATO to expand the International Security Assistance Force [ISAF] for the past two years, but to no avail," says Mark Sedra, a research associate at the Bonn International Center for Conversion (BICC) where he leads a project that monitors and analyses security in Afghanistan.
NATO member states have not displayed the political will necessary to fulfill this request, says Sedra, who recently returned from Afghanistan.
"It has had difficulty meeting its existing modest commitments. In spite of continued lobbying from the United Nations, I do not think NATO will be able to muster the resources to raise troop strength above current levels," he told IPS.
The ISAF has about 6,500 NATO troops in Afghanistan, mostly from Germany and Canada.
In July, NATO Secretary-general Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said the North Atlantic alliance is hoping to boost its peacekeeping force with two additional units of about 1,000 soldiers each. But since then, NATO has complained that its members have responded very poorly to its request for more troops and equipment.
The United States has about 20,000 troops in Afghanistan, but they are primarily concerned with hunting down fighters of the former ruling Taliban regime and members of the al-Qaeda terrorist group of Osama bin Laden in the southern mountainous regions of the country. The Bush administration provides no troops to ISAF.
"The enduring problem in Afghanistan is the failure of western nations to live up to their commitments to provide peacekeeping troops," says Ahmed Rashid, author of Jihad: the Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia.
The dire security situation has prompted many Afghans, European diplomats, UN officials and NGOs to see the Afghan elections as chiefly a White House political objective, he adds.
According to Sedra, "the secretary-general’s skeptical characterization of the security situation [in Afghanistan] is entirely accurate as the situation is deteriorating rapidly and will continue to do so as the elections draw closer. The Taliban are resurgent, and clashes between rival militias have increased as they jockey for position in the run-up to the elections."
"Frankly speaking, the present environment in Afghanistan is not conducive for free and fair elections," Sedra said, pointing out that intimidation will be rampant, as it was during a meeting of various tribal and ethnic groups, called the Loya Jirgas, held in 2002.
Jim Ingalls, founding director of the Afghan Women’s Mission who is currently working on a book about U.S. policy in Afghanistan, told IPS that Annan’s report is not an exaggeration security in Afghanistan is worse than ever since the period 1992-1996, before the Taliban took power.
"It may be even worse than that," he said. "There are too many examples to mention. Just recently Ismael Khan, one of the warlords, almost lost the province of Herat to another warlord Amanullah Khan, who was only forced to back down when U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and U.S. warplanes made an appearance," added Ingalls.
Another indication of serious insecurity, he said, was the decision of Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF or Doctors Without Borders) to pull out of Afghanistan last month, after 24 years of service.
Ingalls also pointed out that a recently updated "travel advisory" by the U.S. State Department "strongly warns" U.S. citizens against traveling to Afghanistan, because "the security environment remains volatile and unpredictable."
Reports of multiple registrations for those polls has cast doubts on the validity of the process, which is being overseen by the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA). The multiple registrations, numbering about 100,000, have resulted in some Afghans receiving more than one voting card.
Asked about the charges, Manoel de Almeida e Silva, UNAMA’s press spokesman, told reporters in Kabul on Sunday that "no matter how many cards you might have, you can only vote once."
He said voters will be asked to dip their thumbs in indelible ink in order to prevent fraudulent voting. "By doing that we are ensuring that people only vote once," he added.
A spokeswoman for the U.S.-based Carter Center, which oversees elections worldwide, said it has no plans to send observers to the Afghan presidential elections.
According to Ingalls, "While voter fraud is certainly a problem, the alleged amount [at most a few 100,000 among nine million voters one or two percent] is probably not significant."
"I am more concerned with the intimidation of voters by warlords and their soldiers, which was a serious problem in the delegate selection process for both the 2002 Loya Jirga and the Constitutional Loya Jirga last December. It is certain to happen during the presidential elections," he warned.
"I’m also concerned about the quality of the elections themselves. While there are 17 candidates for president, most are either warlords or are too afraid to take any real stand against the warlords to make much difference to the political climate. That was documented in Annan’s report," Ingalls added.
Added Sedra, "a free and fair election cannot be held in Afghanistan as long as the major political parties maintain independent, well-armed militias."
He also warned that a contested election result could lead to widespread violence. "Now that it has become apparent that the election will be closer than anyone anticipated, the prospect of post-election violence is very real."
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