Afghanistan: Current Status

by Michael Rubin

For the past two years, I have been working closely with Ahmad Majidyar, both at the American Enterprise Institute and through events run by the Naval Postgraduate School. Ahmad’s analysis of events in Afghanistan is always levelheaded; often, he spots problems or trends weeks ahead of other Afghan experts. Before I do interviews that touch on Afghanistan or Pakistan, Ahmad gets me up to speed on the previous week’s events. As Afghanistan heads into elections this week, here’s Ahmad Majidyar’s latest update:

Security is deteriorating: Insurgent attacks are at their highest level since the Taliban’s fall. More than 1,350 insurgent attacks happened in August (as estimated by the Safety Office), compared to 630 last August. The Taliban maintains a substantial presence in all 34 provinces except one, Panjshir. And 30 percent of country is unsafe for travel, according to the latest UN estimates. 

While the U.S. surge plan focuses on southern Afghanistan, the Taliban have launched their own surge in the eastern and northern provinces. Taliban activity has risen markedly in Kunduz and Baghlan, both in the north. Last month, the Taliban killed ten aid workers in Badakhshan, once a Taliban-free province. The al-Qaeda–linked Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan helps the Taliban in north, too. Nangarhar, once hailed as the most peaceful province in the east, has seen several assassinations and terrorist attacks recently, causing the election commission to close down about 80 polling centers in the province.

Progress in the south is also faltering. The planned large-scale operation in Kandahar has yet to take place, and efforts to recruit local Pashtuns in the south have failed. Last month, just 66 of the more than 3,000 Afghan recruits for the Afghan National Army were Pashtuns.

Parliamentary Polls: There are 2,545 candidates, including 410 women, contesting 249 lower-house seats in the September 18 polls, which are already threatened by deteriorating security and fraud.

The Taliban have vowed to disrupt the election, and more than 1,000 of the 6,835 polling centers (almost 15 percent) have closed for security reasons, mostly in Pashtun rural areas in south and east.

The electoral-register system is still flawed;  some 5 million of its 17 million voters are believed to be fraudulent or duplicates. Election workers have been offered up to $500,000 to falsify voter results in favor of Karzai’s supporters, according to independent observers. Fake voter cards have been printed in Pakistan and distributed in Afghan villages.

The latest report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction has warned that the polls could be as fraudulent and controversial as last year’s elections. And now Karzai has more control over the Election Complaints Commission than during last year’s vote. He appointed all its directors, including the two foreigners.

Failure to hold a credible election on September 18 would have disastrous implications for Afghanistan and the United States. It is a test of credibility for Karzai after last year’s fraud-tainted presidential poll. If insecurity undermines the election, Karzai’s plan to put Afghan forces in control of security will be called into question. Washington’s plan to begin troop withdrawal in July 2011 will be put in doubt.

While the parliamentary election has received little attention in the West, it is considered more important by Afghans in the provinces. It directly shapes local political dynamics and the distribution of power within each district and province. Fraud could cause conflict between provincial leaders and local powerbrokers, prove detrimental to COIN efforts, and undermine the legitimacy of the Kabul government.