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Will elections settle any of Afghanistan's problems?

Alan MacKenzie
October 10, 2019

Tainted by alleged fraud and Taliban attacks on polling stations, what kind of mandate do elections give in a country beset by violence and weak rule of law? Conflict Zone meets the Afghan ambassador to the UN in Geneva.

DW Conflict Zone | Nasir Andisha
Image: DW

Nasir Andisha on Conflict Zone

An unofficial estimate by an election officer suggested just one in five registered voters cast their ballot in September's presidential elections. This would be a lower turnout than any of the three previous presidential elections in the country.

Threats of violence by the Taliban against voters, despite a large security presence on polling day, played its part in keeping many away. One NGO compiled reports of over 400 hundreds attacks, while the Afghan interior ministry said "the enemy" had carried out 68.

That the elections happened at all showed "the resolve of the Afghan people to decide their fate democratically," the country's ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Nasir Andisha, has told DW's Conflict Zone.

But the election was marred not only by violence. Allegations of widespread fraud and technical failures have tainted the legitimacy of the result. 

Election 'learning process'

Conflict Zone host Tim Sebastian began the interview by asking the ambassador who could have confidence in any election result when it arrived.

"So far the reports that I have received is that it has been a much better election than before," Andisha said, and both frontrunners had said "categorically" they would respect the result announced by the election commission.

Afghanistan Stimmauszählung
Around 9.6 million citizens had registered to vote in these presidential elections, compared with 12 million in 2014Image: Reuters/O. Sobhani

Disputed presidential elections in 2014 led to months of fractious political wrangling, resulting in a power-sharing agreement between President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah.

The results of this year's election are expected on Oct. 17. If no candidate wins a majority, the top two contenders would face each other in a second ballot.

In September, the former heads of the country's election commission and electoral complaints commission were jailed for graft, along with eight colleagues. Tim Sebastian told the ambassador this could be only the tip of the iceberg of election fraud in the country.

"We are addressing the tip of it and then we will get to the bottom of it," said Andisha.

US-Afghanistan relations

Another pressing worry for Afghan leaders is the breakdown in relations with Washington, but the ambassador denied they were fighting with the United States.

The US has cut $160 million of direct funding to Afghanistan and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said authorities in charge of monitoring corruption in the country were "incapable of being a partner."

Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad in Kabul
Zalmay Khalilzad, the US special envoy to Afghanistan, was accused by a senior Afghan official of seeking to become a "viceroy" in a caretaker governmentImage: AFP/W. Kohsar

"If there are problems, those are shared problems. If there's progress, that's a shared progress," said Andisha.

The US special envoy to Afghanistan reportedly met with Taliban negotiators in recent days, the first such meeting since Donald Trump said an apparent peace deal with the insurgent group was "dead," though US officials have said official talks have not resumed.

When Sebastian pointed out that the Taliban wouldn't sit down with the government in Kabul, Andisha told him that "they have to sit."

"We are the reality on the ground. The Taliban are living probably in the '90s still."

But when asked if he wanted the talks between the US and the Taliban to fail, Andisha said they "definitely" wanted them to succeed. "We are all sick and tired of war."

Any sustainable peace had to involve all stakeholders in "a common vision for a future of Afghanistan," he said. Tim Sebastian pressed the ambassador over how possible a common vision was with a Taliban that had killed civilians, closed girls' schools and punished women by whipping them.

"We believe that there is a zone of agreement where the two sides will come to a consensus," said the ambassador, but women's rights were a red line in any negotiation.

Human rights

The Afghan authorities have been criticized themselves over their human rights record and allegations of torture by security services and national police.

A report from April by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said that while there had been an "encouraging reduction" in eradicating torture, there was "ongoing concern at the high number of detainees who continue to report torture and ill-treatment." In Kandahar, UNAMA said a "staggering" 77% of detainees had "credible and reliable accounts" of torture or ill treatment by the Afghan National Police.

Why was this allowed to go on?

"The question should not be put like this, that we are allowing it. It's not like it's the government's policy," Andisha said.

The government was doing "everything possible" to stop it, said the ambassador, and while there might be "capacity problems," it wasn't happening because of a lack of commitment.