The assassination of Amanullah Aman, the Chief Election Officer of Afghanistan's Kunduz province, in September should be taken seriously, as it could mark the beginning of a devastating terror campaign targeting election workers that could potentially paralyze next April's presidential elections. One day after the incident, the Taliban kidnapped two low-level election workers in the other northern province of Faryab. Combined, these events sent a chilling message to election workers across the country and raised alarms about the changing tactics of insurgents for derailing the elections.
An inclusive and transparent election, which is key to creating legitimate results, plays a vital role for the future of Afghanistan. A legitimate election will not only guarantee the first peaceful political transition from one elected leader to another in Afghanistan's history, it will also harden the entrenchment of the roots of Afghanistan's young democracy and political order. More importantly it will increase existential threats against the violent militants and thus will increase hopes for future peace talks with the Taliban. Conversely, any failure to hold proper elections will pose serious challenges to Afghanistan's stability, and will boost the position and rhetoric of the Taliban and other extremist groups who have been relentlessly sabotaging democratic processes.
The Taliban and their benefactors understand the critical nature of the elections and in all probability will spare no acts and means of subversion to sabotage the process. The assassination of Aman, for which the Taliban took responsibility, most likely demonstrates a new tactic of the militants, which is targeting election workers. To make this message clear, the Taliban boasted about the incident onTwitter and declared to the media that they will kill anyone involved in the elections.
In previous elections, Taliban focused on intimidating the public to prevent them from voting. But their disruptive tactics failed to produce the desired outcome. People voted, in spite of the threats that even included chopping off voters' fingers. This failed strategy, combined with the fact that the significant reduction of international troops will add to the security challenges than in the 2009 presidential elections, may have led the Taliban to change their tactic, switching their focus from the public to the election officials.
Noor Ahmad Noor, one of the spokespersons for the Independent Election Commission (IEC), told the media that during the previous elections, the Taliban did not explicitly threaten election workers and that IEC officials were not singled out. He added that prior to the Aman incident, there had been no attacks on commission staff for the past two years.
According to Farid Afghanzai, another senior IEC official, Aman spent the last 10 years of his life organizing elections in the country's north, and he managed four elections in the area: three in Kunduz province and one in Badakhshan province. He added that Aman was respected by all ethnic groups in the provinces and it will be almost impossible to find another person as professional, capable, and widely respected as he was.
Afghan election officials have long been complaining about the lack of adequate security for their staff and the public at the voting sites. Just one day before Aman's assassination, Mohammad Yosuf Nooristani, chairman of the IEC, told reporters that the security of his colleagues was his biggest worry. He also said that 259 of the nearly 7,000 polling centers were currently beyond the government's control.
This is a serious challenge for the elections. The primary concern is that Afghan security forces, considering the nature of the attacks of the insurgents and the tough geography of Afghanistan, will find it difficult to secure all electoral sites and electoral workers, particularly the mobile teams operating in remote areas. Furthermore, the planned reduction of NATO troops in the run-up to the elections will inadvertently increase the security challenge and make it more difficult to create a safe voting environment.
Inadequate security for election officials should be considered a serious threat to the political transition by both the Afghan government and Afghanistan's international partners, especially in light of the recent targeting of electoral workers. To combat this threat, the Afghan government needs to use all of its resources to secure the election process, and the United States should tailor its troop reduction strategy based on the security need on the ground. The United States should also support the Afghan security forces by placing limited troop reinforcements along Afghanistan's borders around election time to prevent the heavy infiltration of terrorists. Furthermore, the US and its allies should put pressure on the Pakistani fouj (Pakistan's military and intelligence establishment) to check Taliban infiltrations into Afghanistan around polling day just as it did in response to similar pressure from the Bush administration in the 2004 presidential elections. After all, successful elections will play a definitive role in shaping the results of 12 years of U.S and coalition partners' sacrifice and investment in Afghanistan.
Furthermore, both the Afghan government and its international supporters need to consistently communicate their adamant support for holding elections no matter what security threats exist. This will help boost the morale of Afghan voters and will weaken the psychological effect of the fear campaign of the Taliban.
"We don't have any other choice but to have elections" is the most common sentiment voiced by Afghans of all walks of life. Next year's elections in particular need to be considered a sacred mission in Afghanistan, as they are not only necessary for strengthening democracy, but also a major step in marginalizing violent extremists. Current President Hamid Karzai, who recently said that "holding successful elections will help foil the plot of Afghanistan's enemies" - a term often used when referring to the Taliban and their foreign backers - realizes the importance of the situation. However, the upcoming elections pose the biggest imperative to president Karzai to demonstrate decent statesmanship and would enable him to preside over a historic transfer of power. Taking the threat to election officers seriously is a crucial step in guaranteeing a secure and legitimate election.
Najib Sharifi is a founding member of Afghanistan Analysis and Awareness (A3), a Kabul-based think tank.