Analysis Military

Afghanistan Weekly: The Afghanistan Elections

On the 20th of October Afghanistan held its third parliamentary elections since the Taliban were removed from power in 2001. There were approximately 2,500 candidates vying for 250 seats in the Wolesi Jirga, the lower house of Afghanistan’s bicameral National Assembly. The elections, as expected, were marred by violence, irregularities, closed polling stations, and, in at least two provinces, postponed until the following day.

According to Mohammad Jawad of DPA (Deutsche Presse Agentur), 28 people were killed in attacks on polling stations across the country and another 102 wounded in some 192 security incidents on election day. Mohammad Jawad (JD) is a close friend who quoted another friend (and noted Afghan expert) in his piece:

“According to Thomas Ruttig, co-director and founder of Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN), the election was chaotic, the preparation bad, biometric devices came into the process too late and the election commission did not control the process. He called it the worst election since 2004.”

In the United States this week’s midterm elections are considered critical to the future of the country, and the exact same thing was said about the elections in Kabul last month. Both contentions are no doubt true, but unlike the American election what happened last week in Afghanistan will change nothing. This is not because of rampant voter fraud, intimidation, and stuffed ballot boxes — there is plenty of that in America too. The failure of elections to bring democratic style change to Afghanistan is by design because they use the Single-Non-Transferable Voting system (SNTV).

SNTV is an electoral system that is used in Jordan, the Pitcairn Islands, Thailand, and Vanuatu. Under this system, candidates run for the number of seats assigned to each province, and voters can cast a single vote for their candidate. The system eliminates the potential of stable political parties and resulted in some candidates winning the last parliamentary election in Afghanistan with less than one half of one percent of the vote.

When Michael Semple, a regional expert working for the European Union at the time, explained the problems with the SNTV system to then-President Karzai he became more attracted to it. SNTV favors a strong executive branch while turning the parliament, which was supposed to check the power of the executive, into a lottery of independent political actors who have no political power. It favors men who have the power of the gun.

The man who announced that Afghanistan would go with the SNTV was the powerful Afghan-American ambassador at that time, Zalmay Khalizad. This was how the decision was announced as related in an exceptionally detailed piece on the Afghanistan election of 2009 by Matthieu Akins.

“In May of 2004, at a meeting held in the residence of Jean Arnault, who was then the top U.N. official in Afghanistan, and attended by most of the senior members of the diplomatic community in Kabul, Khalilzad arrived late and declared, simply, “I’ve spoken with the president, and it’s going to be SNTV.”

Interestingly, when interviewed by Mattieu for that story, Khalilzad did not remember this incident and denied having anything to do with the SNTV decision. But that denial is not important — what’s important is that Zalmay Khalilzad is back in Kabul, having been appointed by President Trump to be the United States Special Advisor to Afghanistan this past September.

I do not know Zalmay Khalilzad but did have a few interactions with him when he was the ambassador back in 2005. I was the project manager for the first contractor guard force to take over the American Embassy security contract. I had to explain why my guard force, who had just taken over for the Marine Corps, looked like a heavily armed motorcycle gang. I worked for a British company; our guard force consisted mainly of South Africans and Brits who liked leather jackets and long dusters. I explained to the ambassador that my company would have our uniforms shipped in within the week; he said something like, “too bad, your guys look kind of cool the way they are now.” He had a sense of humor that was distinctly lacking in the head Regional Security Officer we reported to. A sense of humor is good, but what does the reemergence of Khalilzad in Kabul portend for the Afghanistan war?

I’m not sure, but I do have an educated guess predicated on the certainty that the fighting in Afghanistan will end with a political, not military solution. As Carl con Clausewitz observed in his classic book On War; war is merely the continuation of policy by other means. If you accept Clausewitz’s observation to be true (and I know of no one of would argue it is not), then putting Khalilzad back into the game (assuming he a team player who is working inside the framework established by our State Department) is our best bet. This is why I find the story concerning his role in the SNTV system so alarming. There is no way the State Department was on board with the adaptation of SNTV for Afghanistan.

Will Khalilzad once again start operating with his own agenda? I doubt it; he knows, savvy Afghanistan watchers know, and now you know how he played a major role in permanently destabilizing the political system in Afghanistan. He may have had the best of intentions when he helped Karzai get the system he wanted, we all make mistakes and international heavy hitters are no exception. Yet the fact remains: change in Afghanistan will not come from the ballot box as long as the SNTV system remains in place.

Our policy for central Asia, as articulated by Secretary Mattis in a recent talk with the United States Institute for Peace, is 4R’s + S: Regionalize, Reinforce, Realign, Reconciliation, and Sustainment.  Ambassador Khalilzad has been given the portfolio for the Reconciliation portion of our strategy for which he is uniquely suited. I imagine he is also working on the sustainment piece too by coaxing more financial support commitments from our allies.

I am certain that Khalilzad will be focused like a laser on his portfolio due to the adult supervision built into the Trump administration. When Khalilzad was last in Kabul the Secretary of Defense (Donald Rumsfeld) and the rest of the executive branch were focused on the fiasco they had unleashed in Iraq. They did not have the time nor did they seem inclined to exercise supervision over diplomats in the field.

These days we have a Secretary of Defense, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and White House Chief of Staff who have spent the past 18 years working closely together on the problems of Iraq and Afghanistan. There is just no way that the SecDef or Chief of Staff are going to fail to provide supervision to a special envoy.

Inflicting unsustainable casualties on the Taliban to force them to quit the fight is not going to happen. Inflicting that level of pain on them would require the re-introduction of massive western military forces and that’s off the table. Change will come via political settlement, which is what Mattis and Dunford both say every time they are asked by the media. At this stage of the Afghanistan war, the one person who has a chance of affecting a workable settlement is Zalmay Khalilzad.

As a westerner who loves Afghanistan and its people (most of them anyway), I wish him nothing but the best. And then I hope that he helps fix the defunct political system he helped install.

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