Peace *and* Elections in Afghanistan?

Afghanistan is slated to hold its next national elections in the not-too-distant future. Presidential balloting is due in 2014, and parliamentary elections are scheduled for 2015. As it happens, that’s about the same time NATO is supposed to hand over full responsibility for security in the country to the Government of Afghanistan.

The coincidence of these inflection points has some people worried, and it should. For a while now, international interventionists of various stripes have portrayed democratic elections as catalysts of peace in countries beset by civil wars. The thinking goes something like this: Civil wars are really just domestic politics by other means–in other words, fights over governance. To resolve these fights, you need to get to a government that all parties to the conflict consider legitimate. Free and fair elections are the only way to get to legitimate government nowadays; ergo, you can’t get to conflict resolution without going through elections.

In an important recent paper, however, political scientists Dawn Brancati and Jack Snyder argue that elections held soon after civil wars end are more likely to spur renewed fighting than they are to cement the peace. “Bringing quantitative evidence to bear on this heretofore largely qualitative policy debate,” they write, “we find that the skeptics are correct in their central claim: holding elections too soon after a civil war raises substantially the risk of war occurring again.”

This outcome isn’t inevitable, of course. From their statistical analysis, Brancati and Snyder also conclude that “decisive victories, demobilization, and peacekeeping diminish the fighting capacity of former combatants who might otherwise be tempted to return to war when faced with unfavorable election results.” Importantly, they also argue that international actors can help bring about these more propitious conditions, or at least to avoid pressing for the unfavorable combination of unstable peace and quick elections.

International involvement has often pushed for early elections in risky conditions, when recently warring factions remain well armed and able to use violence to contend for power. Indeed, international actors have helped create these conditions in the first place by pressing warring factions to reach settlements before one side has defeated the other. However, international actors can sometimes create conditions that mitigate the risk posed by early elections when they provide robust peacekeeping, facilitate the demobilization of armed forces, back power sharing agreements, and help build robust political institutions. Thus, we argue that international pressure in favor of early elections strengthens peace when it provides these stabilizing instruments, but it undermines peace when it is not backed by effective means to achieve stable democracy.

Unfortunately, none of the “favorable conditions” identified by Brancati and Snyder exists today in Afghanistan. For starters, there isn’t yet a peace agreement. It’s possible that a peace deal negotiated between now and 2014 might involve a power-sharing government, but that outcome would actually be in tension with the commitment to free and fair elections. Either the next elections are fair and competitive, in which case the power-sharing deal is essentially dead on arrival; or the power-sharing deal trumps the elections, in which case the balloting is an exercise in wasted spending and dashed expectations. Either way, the two processes seem to be working at cross purposes.

Some observers are already talking about how to put these processes on more complementary tracks. In a recent blog post for Foreign Policy in Focus, writer Conn Hallinan sees a cease-fire, a government of national unity, a constitutional assembly, a regional conference, and continued development assistance as the ingredients most likely to produce a successful exit from this messy tangle.

Hamish Nixon and Caroline Hartzell put more meat on some of those bones in a December 2011 report for the U.S. Institute for Peace, arguing that “any negotiated settlement to the Afghan conflict should involve a set of transitional arrangements to govern the period between the signing of a peace settlement, a cease-fire, and the entry into force of more permanent institutions for conflict management.” That transitional period would involve negotiations over long-term institutions, the form of which would not necessarily be proscribed by the existing constitution. In their view,

A wide range of potential measures could create opportunities among the conflicting parties to share influence, as well as balance that influence with more roles for noncombatants, civilian political actors, and vulnerable groups.

Power sharing and reform are not mutually exclusive approaches to addressing the political dimensions of the conflict. A combination of power-sharing, power-dividing, power-creating, and power-diffusing mechanisms can provide groups within divided societies with assurances that they will not be permanently excluded from state power and resources, while generating more effective and accountable governance and establishing the foundations for a more capable, accountable, and resilient state.

In Afghanistan, this might include clarifying or even redefining the powers of the president, National Assembly, and the courts, modifying the relationship between the central government and provincial and district administrations, or creating and diffusing decision-making authority among new or existing institutions over issues such as appointments.

I don’t know whether either of these approaches would work, and I don’t know what other options might exist. I do know, though, that we should be dubious of the assumption that the upcoming elections will automatically advance the causes of peace and development in Afghanistan, as long as they’re sufficiently clean and well-run.

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