The dust storm of controversy surrounding the recent release of U.S. Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, and the nature of his initial capture, has seemingly obscured one of the most important and imminent events impacting U.S. national security interests: the June 14 runoff election in Afghanistan. While it seems that many national media outlets have forgotten about the second-round vote, the June 6 assassination attempt on Abdullah Abdullah, one of the two remaining candidates, is a morbid reminder that the election is far from over.
The head-to-head contest between the frontrunner, Abdullah, a former foreign minister, and Ashraf Ghani, a former finance minister, will result in the first democratic handover of power in Afghanistan's history. Despite both candidates trading fraud and manipulation accusations, Abdullah, who enjoyed a 13-point lead in the April poll results, remains the odds on favorite for Saturday's vote. Both Abdullah and Ghani continue to feverishly campaign, and any shifts in support have not been systematically identified, considering the United States cancelled its funding for opinion polling in January in an effort to avoid any perception of impartiality.
The first-round vote saw approximately 7 million Afghan voters -- compared to 4.6 million in 2009 -- head to the polls, an encouraging 35 percent of whom were women. Such an astonishing voter turnout in the face of violent extremist threats marks a significant step for Afghanistan's march toward a representative government founded on electoral legitimacy. What is more, the responsive and professional performance of Afghanistan's electoral authorities in the first round demonstrates the important strides these institutions have made -- with much support from the United States and international community -- since the 2004 and 2009 elections.
These improvements must be lauded and should not be glossed over. At the same time, the international community cannot ignore and must work with their Afghan partners to counteract potential threats to the runoff on Saturday. Concerns surrounding the conduct of the first round and renewed Taliban threats of violence -- exemplified by the attempt on Abdullah's life that killed six and injured 22 -- highlight the possibility that the runoff election will be marred by fraud and bloodshed.
In the lead-up to and during the first round of presidential elections on April 5, reports of fraud and irregularities poured in from across the country. Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission (IEC) received more than 700 claims of fraud and ultimately dismissed roughly 3,000 election workers due to misconduct. While the first round should absolutely be seen as an improvement over the extensive fraud acknowledged during the 2009 presidential polls, ongoing and systematic manipulation should act as a somber reminder that more work needs to be done.
Afghanistan also experienced an increase in violent attacks prior to the first round of voting, and there were over 140 election-day incidents. Now, with the summertime fighting season in full swing, the June runoff is a point of concern for many observers and international organizations on the ground. Fresh off of their self-proclaimed victory of securing the release of five senior members from the U.S. detention facility at Guantánamo Bay -- in exchange for Bergdahl -- the Taliban have escalated their threats of violence against citizens who participate on election day.
A resurgent Taliban likely views the election as an attractive international stage on which to reassert their potency. If they successfully disrupt the election, the insurgency could gain momentum and plunge the country back into war, just as the American and international presence declines.
Just as they worked together to ensure a relatively credible vote in April, the international community and Afghan stakeholders must and should remain vigilant and exercise all available means to make sure the runoff is free, fair, and peaceful. Steps taken in the next several days should include continued election monitoring, broad stakeholder pressure, and continued efforts to promote peaceful participation, as well as curbing intimidation and violence on candidates, voters, and monitors alike.
The circumstances behind Sgt. Bergdhal's initial capture and eventual prisoner exchange must and will be investigated. However, in doing so, the United States, as well as its international and Afghan partners, must remain focused on the overall mission -- standing up a functioning democracy in Afghanistan that is capable of effectively managing its own domestic and foreign affairs, and constructively participating as a member of the international community.
To this end, the United States can and should play a constructive role in supporting key Afghan stakeholders as they strive to achieve a free and fair vote, particularly the IEC as it reviews all registered fraud and irregularity complaints, ensures sufficient availability of ballot papers at all polling stations, and pre-positions additional voting materials in the event of an unanticipated turnout.
The Afghan electoral authorities and national security forces have made important improvements in preventing, managing, and mediating violence throughout the electoral cycle. Even though this capacity exists and reaped valuable dividends for the first round, the same result for June 14 cannot be taken for granted. With strong U.S. backing, they must take every precaution necessary to ensure the safety and security of Afghan citizens exercising their constitutional right to vote.
Dr. Patrick W. Quirk is a Fellow at the Transatlantic Academy, an initiative of the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Washington, D.C. He is the co-author of Best Practices in Electoral Security: a Guide for Democracy, Human Rights and Governance Programming (USAID) and performed an Electoral Security Assessment in Afghanistan in March 2012.
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