U.S. Efforts In Iraq, Afghanistan Stumble On Elections In both Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States has run into serious challenges from the same obstacle — election woes. A rigged election in Afghanistan has jeopardized the Obama administration's strategic review, while Iraq's failure to pass an election law could end up delaying a drawdown of U.S. troops.
NPR logo U.S. Efforts In Iraq, Afghanistan Stumble On Elections

U.S. Efforts In Iraq, Afghanistan Stumble On Elections

People walk near a huge portrait of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, in Kabul. The Afghan government will hold a Nov. 7 runoff election between Karzai and challenger Abdullah Abdullah after a fraud-ridden election in August. Altaf Qadri/AP hide caption

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Altaf Qadri/AP

People walk near a huge portrait of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, in Kabul. The Afghan government will hold a Nov. 7 runoff election between Karzai and challenger Abdullah Abdullah after a fraud-ridden election in August.

Altaf Qadri/AP

The conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq might be in very different stages, but the United States is facing a serious challenge in both places from a common obstacle — election woes.

As U.S. casualties mount in Afghanistan, the Obama administration's strategy review, which could end up with a decision to dispatch as many as 40,000 additional U.S. troops, was thrown into disarray after blatant rigging of the August election discredited the government of President Hamid Karzai.

At the same time, entrenched political battles over an electoral law in Iraq are threatening to delay a long-awaited parliamentary election in January. The political wrangling, along with a deadly spate of suicide bombings, could end up interfering with U.S. plans to accelerate a drawdown of American soldiers there.

The two situations are vivid illustrations of the risks of U.S. strategy that explicitly depends on trying to build legitimate governments in conflict areas by holding democratic elections as soon as possible.

"Because there is such pressure to set up a new government, we always end up by launching these election processes way too soon, when countries are not ready for them," says Marina Ottaway, a democracy expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C. "I don't mean that citizens don't understand what voting means, because that's not the issue. But the issue is you don't have real political parties and you don't have a consensus in the country that elections are really the way that power will be transferred."

The Urgent Problem

The Afghan election is in many ways the more urgent problem. The country has been stuck in a damaging political stalemate since the August election, while violence continues to rise. Fourteen Americans were killed and more than 25 other people injured in two military helicopter crashes in Afghanistan on Monday, one of the deadliest single days in Afghanistan for foreign military and civilian personnel.

Under intense U.S. pressure, Karzai agreed last week to a runoff election to be hastily staged on Nov. 7, pitting the incumbent against his closest challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister.

But it is not clear that the result will be any cleaner or better accepted by the Afghan people. For one thing, supporters of one or both presidential contenders could simply ignore stern warnings from U.S. officials and try to cheat again.

"These political leaders are initially allies of ours, but then they develop their own agendas and we can't control it," says Daniel Brumberg, the co-director of Georgetown University's Democracy and Governance Studies program. "It's a situation in the end where we might not get democracy or peace in either country."

Before Karzai agreed to a runoff, some U.S. officials and Afghan politicians suggested that the two leading presidential candidates should form a government of national unity. The proposal reflected continued skepticism that any election result would be widely accepted by the Afghan people as credible.

'Aura Of Skepticism'

"This aura of skepticism extends not just to this election, but the concept that elections can work within Afghanistan," says one U.S. official. "There are many Afghans who would argue that they are still quite a bit away from being able to conduct these elections and have the losers respect the results."

Part of the problem is that officials tend to focus very heavily on the election itself, but much of the real preparation, such as creating a valid registry of voters, is done in the months and years leading up to an election.

Afghanistan's first elections in 2004 and 2005 were run by the United Nations and were generally praised as a surprisingly successful vote for such an unstable country.

"Once you have an election, you have a certain amount of time to focus on governance — fighting corruption, building institutions and the rule of law," says Brumberg. "If you don't use that window of opportunity to do that, the political leadership is discredited at the same time as the security situation worsens."

The August election was managed by an Afghan electoral commission that was appointed by Karzai. Along with questions about the group's impartiality, many observers were concerned that the United States and the international community did not do enough to help the commission prepare for the massive challenge of running the election, particularly as the security situation worsened.

"The level of investment — in the election commission, in the structures of observation, in all the things you have to do to prevent fraud — was nonexistent," says Andrew Reynolds, a political scientist at the University of North Carolina who has advised the United Nations on elections in Iraq and Afghanistan. "We totally took our eye off the ball."

Inattention To Iraq

Iraq suffered from a different kind of inattention. The passage of the basic electoral law has been held up by political disputes that have been put off for years. Parliamentary elections are scheduled for Jan. 16, but they cannot take place without a legal framework.

Iraqi election officials say that once an electoral law has been passed, they need at least 90 days to prepare for an election, meaning that a protracted dispute could delay the election. With 125,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, the Obama administration has been waiting for the election to be held before accelerating the drawdown. Now, they might have to wait longer.

First of all, militants appear intent on sabotaging the upcoming election. A pair of massive car bombings that killed more than 150 people on Sunday targeted government buildings in what many saw as a direct challenge to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

But the election law stalemate is troubling as well. Perhaps the biggest stumbling block to passing a new law is the status of the disputed oil-rich northern city of Kirkuk, where ethnic Kurdish and Arab politicians are battling over how to distribute political power.

The Rules Of The Game

Politicians have also failed to decide on the basic structure of the election. Some want to continue using a system where voters choose from preset lists of candidates, while newcomers are pushing to allow Iraqis to vote for individual candidates.

"The real problem is that there is no agreement on the rules of the game," says Ottaway. "We are still trying to determine what kind of political systems these are going to be. There are a lot of issues that have not been decided, and yet we are holding elections."

Even if the election is held on time, there could be additional delays in forming a new government. In each previous election, Iraqi politicians have squabbled for months before selecting a new prime minister.

"The postelection situation could be just as problematic as the pre-election time," says Wayne White, a former Iraq intelligence expert at the State Department. "No matter what happens, the aftermath of the election is going to be dicey as we sort out the political situation in Iraq."

Some of the early pressure to focus on holding elections in Afghanistan and Iraq stemmed from the Bush administration's efforts to spread democracy. But the votes were also seen as the best — and perhaps only — way for the United States to avoid being treated as a hostile occupier by building instantly legitimate local governments.

"In 2009, you can't come up with a political plan that doesn't include elections. It's just not feasible," says Alex Thier, the director for Afghanistan and Pakistan at the U.S. Institute of Peace. "But there are very serious pitfalls to doing that, which is why we need to be very strategic in figuring out how to make those processes effective."

Elections are viewed as a critical tool to legitimizing the governments in Iraq and Afghanistan, and vindicating U.S. policy in the region.

Thomas Garrett, the vice president for programs at the International Republican Institute, observed the Afghan elections in 2004, 2005 and 2009.

"The improvements the United States is trying to make there just can't be done if the Afghan government is not seen as legitimate," he says.