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Elections Unlikely Barometer for Change in Afghanistan

While the outcome of the Afghan elections won't be known for a few days at best, (raw polling data collected by media outlets suggests Hamid Karzai winning 72% of the vote, with his closest rival, Abdullah Abdullah, at 23%, although the Afghan Electoral Complaints Commission has received 225 complaints about voting irregularities since August 20) senior members of the Obama administration deemed the August 20 presidential and provincial council elections in Afghanistan the "most important event of the year." But Malalai Joya, a member of the Afghan Parliament, thinks otherwise. "This election will change nothing and it is only part of a show of democracy put on by and for the West." Whoever emerges victorious, she has a point, and the Obama administration should listen.

However one chooses to define "democratic elections," they occurred under U.S. and NATO military occupation, almost eight years after the United States invaded on October 7. Just before election day, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, made a declaration that comes as no surprise to Afghans who have watched occupying forces and warlords run their country, which ranks 174th out of 178 countries in the UN Development Program's 2007-2008 Human Development Index.

"The insurgency has grown," McChrystal stated in an interview with German media. "It has grown geographically, and it has grown in levels of violence," he added. His admission alone begs the question of how an increased troop presence will contribute to the security and stability of Afghanistan (never mind bring democracy) — an issue that goes well beyond this election, and the previous 2004 election, which "officially" brought the interim U.S.-installed President Hamid Karzai into power.

Such a statement should provoke the question: Why has President Obama staked so much on the elections, given insecurity rules and the government's legitimacy remains questionable?

In the weeks leading up to the election, analysts and the Twittersphere focused more on the election process and less on the substance. Would the Taliban carry through with its declarations of disrupting the elections, of chopping off the fingers of voters with ink-stained fingers? Would polling places beyond Kabul, in the Taliban-strong southern province of Kandahar, be secure? Would Karzai join the other leading presidential contenders, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah and former finance minister Ashraf Ghani (who hired renowned Democratic strategist James Carville to run his campaign), in the presidential debates?

The Afghan war has cost $228 billion since 2001, according to the National Priorities Project. In light of this monster-sized figure and the thousands of human lives lost, the nature of the media's procedural questions seem less than well thought out.

The "façade of democracy," in Malalai Joya's words, was exemplified in the flawed voter registration process in Kandahar. "Cards have been handed out to nonexistent voters, with women accounting for a disproportionate number of names on the list of eligible voters, including one 'Britney Jamila Spears,'" reported The Globe and Mail on August 19. Karzai even enlisted notorious Uzbek warlord Rashid Dostum to campaign on his behalf. He ordered his fighters during the war in late 2001 to stuff surrendering Taliban prisoners into metal shipping containers without food or water. Hundreds died.

In his attempt to define "success" in Afghanistan during a panel in Washington D.C. on August 12 Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, Obama's Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, remarked: "We'll know it when we see it." That's not a reassuring response for Afghans who have watched their country descend into chaos, for those who have been directly impacted by U.S. drones, or for young women who remain afraid to attend school in the midst of increasing violence. This election won't change reality.

Pashtun tribes, consisting of 42% of Afghanistan's population, support the Taliban insurgency, Selig Harrison wrote in the New York Times on August 16. He described their alienation from the rival Tajik minority, who have wielded control over the police, armed police, and intelligence agencies under Karzai.

Reporting for The Guardian on August 15, Ghaith Abdul-Ahad traveled to the south-eastern provinces of Khost, Paktia and Paktika under the control of tribal chief and commander Jalaluddin Haqqani, aligned with Taliban leader Mullah Omar. "Ninety-five percent of the people here support the Taliban," a Pashtun poet and journalist told The Guardian. He explained their appeal in words that should be taken seriously by the Obama administration: "We are Muslims and tribal people, the Taliban are Muslim and from the same tribes, the foreign troops are non-Muslims and there was no referendum from the people to ask them to come here. God told us to fight the occupation so the people are against the occupation."

When polls closed in Afghanistan at 5 p.m. local time, observers noted a lower than expected election turnout, particularly in the south and parts of Kabul. "There are very few people," Mitra Hemat told the New York Times on August 20. "People are afraid, I can tell."

After eight years of bloody fighting, elections are unlikely to bring dramatic change. But Obama and the administration do possess the tools to adjust Afghan policy that would make a difference. A critical policy reassessment about the validity and efficacy of the military surge and continued occupation might well point the way to a negotiated, wide-reaching diplomatic settlement that includes the Taliban. Under the auspices of promoting reconciliation over the destructive reign of bullets, drones, and terror, meaningful political, economic, social, and cultural development could have a chance to occur. Starting that process now could result in the most important event of the year.

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