Reporting for this piece was made possible by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
When Soviet troops withdrew from Afghanistan in the late 1980s, then-president Mohammad Najibullah Ahmadzai managed to hold on for three more years, until the Russians ended their aid and he was forced to take refuge in a U.N. compound. In 1996, when the Afghan Taliban took Kabul, he was assassinated, mutilated, and hung from a traffic light.
When the country goes to the polls this April -- assuming the elections happen as scheduled -- Afghanistan will be choosing who presides over the country as another withdrawal of foreign troops occurs. The elections will be when the final legacy of America's 13-year, nearly $700 billion adventure in Afghanistan will be determined. Their legitimacy, therefore, is critical, because the next president will lack the guarantor of authority President Hamid Karzai has always been able to take for granted: an international community committed to supporting the government, both militarily and financially, for the foreseeable future.
Without NATO, the validity of the elections will be the only well from which the next president will be able to draw authority. Meanwhile, unlike in the United States, where the hand wringing over voter fraud tends to be disproportionate to its actual occurrence, in Afghanistan, it's real, unabashed, and often determinative. The 2009 elections were roundly condemned by the international community for being riddled with irregularities -- "irregularities" being the kindest possible term for an election many believed was just plain rigged. Even so, it didn't matter nearly as much then. Five years ago, an illegitimate election was unfortunate and a little depressing for the country's donors (not to mention its citizens), but with foreign troops not going anywhere, it wasn't mortal.
In April, it might be. And the Afghan government knows it.
As such, the Independent Election Commission has bared its teeth, disqualifying more than half of the registered presidential candidates for failing to meet candidacy requirements and sending warning letters to candidates for unsanctioned campaigning activities. But perhaps most critically, the government introduced the idea of a biometric national identification card with a chip that would contain voter registration information, in the hopes that fancy technology might prevent people from cheating. And, just as importantly, convince them that other people hadn't cheated either. It's hard to overstate how important that is: It is not just the occasion of fraud that's at issue, it's the perception of it. Afghans need to believe the elections were more or less fair, because the next president has to be, at the very least, acknowledged by those who didn't vote for him.
They presented this idea as far back as 2010, just after the last elections, and more than four years before this year's vote. Plenty of time, it would seem, to institute the cards' use.
So then, here is the reason the cards haven't been wrapped up and distributed in time for the elections: the majority ethnic group (Pashtuns) and the various minority ones (primarily Tajiks, Hazaras, and Uzbeks) can't agree on what information should be listed in the card's "nationality" field.
The argument on one side: "It should say ‘Afghan,' because we are all Afghan."
On the other: "Everyone should be identified by ethnicity."
But people lined up in precisely the opposite corners you'd expect them to, if you were using the totalitarian regimes of yore -- sorting minorities in order to suppress them -- as a guide. The most passionate defense for uniformity came from the majority Pashtuns, who argued that specifying ethnicity threatened Afghanistan's national unity and would cause the country to collapse and Balkanize along ethnic lines.
The most rabid defense of specifying ethnic groups, meanwhile, has come from the ethnic minorities themselves. Their argument goes like this: Of course Pashtuns want the cards to all say "Afghan," because "Afghan" is not just what you call a person from Afghanistan; the word is actually synonymous with "Pashtun." ("Afghanistan" literally means "Land of the Pashtuns.") To those inclined to attribute the most nefarious motives to Pashtuns, listing "Afghan" as an ethnicity is a chilling attempt to extend Pashtun hegemony and whitewash other groups.
To others, it's a transparent attempt by the Pashtuns to obscure their declining population advantage, which would be exposed if everyone's ethnicity were finally recorded (the only attempt at a census was in 1979, but it was largely a failed undertaking; 80 people were killed in the process, many questionnaires were lost and destroyed, and the only published results were projections based on less than 10 percent of the population). While no one knows what Afghanistan's actual population numbers are, they matter greatly because they're used to determine political representation. So the minority groups most agitated by the debate regard the attempt to obscure the various ethnic groups as a form of tribal gerrymandering.
So where do we stand now?
The answer is, it's stalled. The parliament last took up the issue in December 2013, but the debate devolved into a melee that spilled out into the media, and then to the streets, when a retired Pashtun general made a comment on a Pashtun news channel calling all the other ethnic groups "bastards if they don't want to take my name." Rejections came from all corners -- a traffic circle in the center of the city was plastered over with banners decrying him -- and Karzai -- in one of the moments of inspired leadership he is still occasionally capable of -- officially condemned the general's words and assured the country that he views all ethnicities as his brothers and sisters.
But since then, no one has touched the issue. If left unresolved, what is likely to happen in April is that people will use their old voter cards, a problem as some still don't have them, many have more than one, and their credibility is generally considered to be suspect. Any use of the old cards will almost certainly taint the elections, and fraud will again be endemic. But even if it isn't, people will assume it has been, and the result will be the same: The president will lack legitimacy. And if past is prelude, a leader in Afghanistan without a clear electoral mandate after foreign forces leave is in for a rough go of it.
Jeffrey E. Stern -- www.JeffreyEstern.com -- is a writer and development worker whose reporting from Afghanistan, Kashmir, and elsewhere has appeared in Esquire, Time, newsweek.com/The Daily Beast, and the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Aref Karimi/AFP/Getty Images