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Afghanistan: U.S. Expert Discusses Possible Delay In June Election

There are growing international concerns that presidential elections scheduled for June in Afghanistan may be delayed. RFE/RL spoke about those concerns with Barnett Rubin, a leading U.S. scholar on Afghanistan who helped draft the Bonn Agreement on post-Taliban transformation. Rubin is the director of the Center for Preventive Action at New York University.

Prague, 17 February 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Rubin was quoted in "The New York Times" yesterday as suggesting that the Bush administration's resistance to the postponement of elections in Afghanistan is inconsistent with its policies on not wanting to conduct direct elections in Iraq by mid-summer. Our correspondent began by asking him if he could elaborate on this idea.

RUBIN: "If you read the statement by the spokesman for [chief U.S. administrator for Iraq L. Paul] Bremer about why it is impossible to hold elections in Iraq that quickly, everything he is saying applies equally as much to Afghanistan -- about the lack of security, the lack of voter rolls, lack of a census, lack of a basic infrastructure of holding elections.

"[The former UN coordinator in Afghanistan and UN envoy to Iraq] Lakhdar Brahimi has been careful in both countries to state that it is a mistake to hold elections before they are properly prepared. He is being consistent, whereas the U.S. government seems to be rather inconsistent in pushing for elections in Afghanistan and pushing against elections in Iraq."

RFE/RL: That same "New York Times" article says that only 8 percent of eligible Afghan voters have been enrolled. Among women, voter registration is only about 2 percent. The UN has said that for a successful ballot, at least 70 percent of eligible voters should be registered. At the same time, the Afghan government says registration is going well. What do you think about the registration process?

"The U.S. government seems to be rather inconsistent in pushing for elections in Afghanistan and pushing against elections in Iraq."
RUBIN: "I wouldn't call it a failure because everyone who is professionally involved with voter registration in the United Nations knew from the beginning that it would be virtually impossible to have proper voter registration in time for elections in June. In addition, the plan that they had to try to meet that goal was to bring a large number of UN volunteers into the country. And that is how they usually hold what they call a 'peacekeeping' election -- that is, a postconflict election.

"But the Office of UN Volunteers -- which is located in Bonn, Germany -- stopped recruiting any internationals to come and work on the voter registration after the assassination of a French woman who was working for the [UN refugee agency] UNHCR in Ghazni. They felt it was simply too insecure to recruit international volunteers to come and deploy them all over Afghanistan."

RFE/RL: What does the absence of international workers in the voter registration process mean, in practical terms, for Afghanistan?

RUBIN: "It means that the whole program is now being carried out with Afghan staff in a country where there has never been a genuine free election -- not a genuine free election with voter registration. There has never been voter registration. There are no paved roads to which most of the population has access. Those people have no identity cards or anything indicating their identity. They have no addresses. They have no birth certificates. The registration is going rather well in the sense that people are coming to register. But, of course, it is taking a long time. It can't be done successfully if it is rushed for an election in June."

RFE/RL: What is the international community doing to help improve the security situation outside of Kabul during the process of voter registration?

RUBIN: "The current plan to bring more security to Afghanistan is to deploy these units called Provincial Reconstruction Teams to various provincial capitals -- mostly run by the [U.S.-led antiterrorism] coalition in the south and members of NATO in the north. There is no indication whatsoever that most of those teams will be ready before the elections. They are needed right now in order to carry out voter registration, and they are not ready right now. The deployment of those teams is not immediately followed by an improvement in security. They have to be in an area and work for some time."

RFE/RL: It sounds as if you are saying that the Provincial Reconstruction Teams will not be able to have the desired impact on voter registration in time for a June presidential election.

RUBIN: "Most observers feel that while those [Provincial Reconstruction] Teams can play a very welcome role in promoting security, they are not adequate in and of themselves. They are meant to be there to provide a supportive environment for the training of Afghan police, the deployment of Afghan security forces, the empowerment and improvement of the quality of local Afghan administration, and so on. So, it would take some time -- probably at least six months to a year -- before the deployment of those teams shows really appreciable results in the improvement of security, if they are successful. Those teams are a welcome partial step toward bringing security to Afghanistan. But they are not going to bring security in time for a national election in June."

RFE/RL: It has been reported that the new Afghan Constitution agreed upon last month requires both parliamentary and presidential elections to be conducted in June.

RUBIN: "There is a misunderstanding on what the constitution says. The constitution does not give any date for holding elections. The constitution states that the government must publish an electoral law providing for how and when the elections are to be carried out. [This electoral law must be published] within six months of the adoption of the constitution. It also says that the government should make every effort it can to hold the presidential and parliamentary elections concurrently. But it does not require them to do so. So the constitution leaves the date open."

RFE/RL: To what do you attribute this misunderstanding about a June 2004 deadline for Afghan elections?

RUBIN: "The Bonn Agreement says that the presidential election is to be held within two years after the Emergency Loya Jirga, which took place in June of 2002. But, of course, the constitution will supersede whatever it says in the Bonn Agreement."

RFE/RL: Do you think it is possible for both presidential and parliamentary elections to be conducted in Afghanistan this year?

RUBIN: "Everyone who looks at the issue seriously agrees that it is not just difficult -- it is completely impossible to hold a parliamentary election in Afghanistan this year. They would have to agree on an electoral law, on constituencies, on the registration of political parties, the registration of hundreds, if not thousands, of candidates. It is a much more demanding type of election for the Electoral Commission because they have to print different kinds of ballots for each constituency, in addition to which the constitution provides that there must be at least two women from each province [in the Parliament], which presumably would mean reserved seats. That will mean probably two ballots in each province, and so on.

"So it is just a far more difficult and demanding operation than a presidential election. And it will be completely impossible to carry it out without at least a year of preparation."

RFE/RL: What public statements are you personally aware of from members of the Bush administration that the presidential election in Afghanistan may have to be pushed back beyond June?

RUBIN: "William Taylor, who is the [U.S.] special coordinator for Afghanistan, said before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on, I believe, January 27 [2004] that it is possible that the [June] election date would slip because of the slowness of voter registration and the problems of security and logistics and so on."

RFE/RL: You were among the group that drafted the Bonn Agreement on Afghanistan's post-Taliban political transition. Will the failure to stick to the June deadline for the presidential election signal a failure on the final step of the Bonn process?

RUBIN: "Well, my personal view is that it was a mistake to have such a deadline in the Bonn Agreement in the first place. I certainly never expected -- and I did not expect at the time we were drafting the Bonn Agreement -- that it would be possible to hold elections in Afghanistan so soon. So, in my view, it just confirms what I always thought was a flaw in the Bonn Agreement."

RFE/RL: What problems could a delayed presidential election create for Transitional Authority President Hamid Karzai?

RUBIN: "The real problem is that President Karzai was elected at the Emergency Loya Jirga for two years. If he were simply to lengthen his term for whatever reasons he might give -- however valid they might be -- that would greatly weaken his political legitimacy both domestically and internationally. And I would be even more concerned about it domestically because there is a history of previous presidents -- particularly President [Burhanuddin] Rabbani [in the early 1990s] -- staying in office beyond the term for transitional purposes, turning their transition into a kind of presidency for life or until they are overthrown. President Karzai, quite rightly, does not want to follow in that precedent."

RFE/RL: If elections must be delayed, is there anything that can be done to preserve President Karzai's legitimacy -- and to prevent the worst-case scenario of civil war between rival militia forces, like the fighting that occurred during the early 1990s?

RUBIN: "What members of [Karzai's] government are kind of hinting is that if it turned out to be impossible to have elections, they would at least have to reconvene the Loya Jirga in order to reaffirm the legitimacy of extending his term in order to carry out national elections. And I would also guess that if they did extend the presidential term, part of the political deal they would have to make then would be to have presidential and parliamentary elections concurrently."