Commentary | Owning up to the reality of the Afghan election

With Afghan citizens fresh from the polls on August 20, Stephen Harper was quick to call the election in the war-torn nation “remarkable.” South of the border, President Barack Obama also dubbed the election a success. Afghan accounts of the election, however, have been more damning, and suggest that the picture our leaders have painted of the situation is both premature and misleading.

Southern Afghanistan, long a hotspot of Taliban activity, registered some of the lowest voter turnout rates in the country. Kandahar, where Canadian forces head the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) occupation, reported a 40 per cent decline in turnout from the 2004 election, while remote parts of the nation registered turnout as low as ten per cent. Several reports have also emerged from Kandahar indicating that the province’s government, which is headed by President Hamid Karzai’s brother Ahmed Wali, stuffed ballot boxes with thousands of doctored ballots after shutting down the polling stations.

Anecdotal but widespread reports also suggest that many citizens stayed home for fear of retribution from Taliban forces. Given the correlation between Taliban activity and dismal voter turnout, Obama’s assertion that the election was “successful,” despite the “Taliban’s efforts to disrupt it” is far from convincing.

What’s more, Western leaders have remained largely silent concerning the obstacles facing female candidates and voters in Afghanistan. On election day, at least 650 female-only polling stations remained closed for fear of violence. In the southern province of Oruzgan, only six of the 36 available female stations opened. Kandahar province was once again a testament to the stubborn influence of the Taliban, with parts of the region reporting turnout rates near zero per cent. And while Western leaders quickly hailed the record number of women seeking office as a symbol of Afghan progress, they were more reluctant to acknowledge that many of these candidates were unable to campaign due to threats to their safety.

Rather than acknowledging these obstacles to a free and fair election, Harper commented that “the democratic process, even in [Canada], can be messy.” Some might agree, but Canadian electoral messiness often takes the form of voter apathy, rather than threats of execution, rocket attacks, and widespread violence against women.

As well, Richard Holbrooke, Obama’s envoy to the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, boasted that “so far, every prediction of disaster turned out to be wrong.” Not only did Holbrooke overlook the spate of suicide bombings and rocket attacks only two days before the election, he also failed to recognize that low voter turnout compromises the legitimacy of the eventual winner’s administration. Whether explosives are detonated or not, an election in which women do not participate and men do so only under the threat of execution is, in a word, a disaster.

Any country emerging from decades of civil war, ethnic strife, and foreign meddling will have difficulty achieving stability. But the least we can expect from our leaders is a credible and honest discussion of a war that will eventually involve more than 100,000 troops and a decade of commitment.

Unless Western leaders provide accurate information about our involvement in Afghanistan, citizens will be unable to hold politicians accountable to their promises of peace and progress in the region. Without honesty and clarity, citizens are robbed of their role in legitimizing their country’s foreign policy; voters pick these policy makers, and such a weighty decision cannot be made in the absence of accurate information.

For a functional and stable democracy in Afghanistan, and for the sake of our own government’s legitimacy, our leaders need to level with their electorate and let us decide whether or not their Central Asian misadventures have been a “remarkable” success.

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