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In Afghanistan, Runoff Election Could Strengthen Democracy

October 20, 2009 at 12:00 AM EST
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Afghan President Hamid Karzai bowed to pressure Tuesday and agreed to a runoff election on Nov. 7. The move came as the Obama administration debates the future of U.S. strategy. Gwen Ifill talks to experts for insight.
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GWEN IFILL: For more on the elections in Afghanistan and the deliberations in Washington, we turn to Robert Neumann, a career Foreign Service officer who served as ambassador to Kabul during the Bush administration, and Alexander Thier. He served on the commission that drafted Afghanistan’s constitution. He’s now a senior adviser at the U.S. Institute for Peace.

Welcome to you, both.

President Obama today called this — quote — “an important precedent for Afghanistan’s new democracy.”

Mr. Ambassador, how so?

RONALD NEUMANN: Well, because you had a bad dispute. You could easily have had this go even worse. There were a lot of rumors that Karzai might not accept the ruling of the international group. And, in the end, they did accept it.

You had a lot of fraud in the election. There’s no question that it came out it was very messy. But I would also remind us that the results are in part — or the lack of a final victory is in part the system, where you have to have over 50 percent.

And it’s useful to remember, just by comparison, that, in President Clinton’s first electoral victory, he had 43 percent, which is less than what is the 48 percent that has been left to Karzai after they have thrown out the fraudulent vote.

I’m not saying that there wasn’t lots of fraud. There was tons of fraud. And it’s good to get past it. But it’s also good to remember that he had a pretty solid backing as well.

GWEN IFILL: I want to apologize. I called you Robert Neumann.

And it’s Ronald Neumann, of course.

RONALD NEUMANN: That’s all right.

But my father was Robert. And he was an ambassador in Afghanistan, too. So…

GWEN IFILL: So, there’s — this has happened to you before. I apologize.

RONALD NEUMANN: Yes.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Thier, when we talk Hamid Karzai’s concession today, or whatever that was, did he have any choice but to agree to this runoff?

J. ALEXANDER THIER, director, Afghanistan and Pakistan, U.S. Institute of Peace: I think he really didn’t. What we learned in the last few weeks, and particularly days, was that the scale of fraud was enormous.

They threw out 1.25 million votes, which is a lot of fraud. And I think that President Karzai really had the choice of either agreeing to a runoff or trying to find some sort of political accommodation with his rival to move past this process.

Ultimately, what’s most important to the Afghans and I think to us is that the outcome of this election process is legitimate. And it would not have been legitimate if Karzai had fought the findings of the Electoral Complaints Commission and tried to stay on board.

International arm-twisting

J. Alexander Thier
U.S. Institute of Peace
There was an enormous amount of international pressure, I believe, on President Karzai to accept the outcome of this process.

GWEN IFILL: Well, watching the president, Karzai, standing there with the United Nations representative there and Senator Kerry there, it felt like a little arm-twisting had gone on.

J. ALEXANDER THIER: There was an enormous amount of international pressure, I believe, on President Karzai to accept the outcome of this process.

I think, as President Obama said, the -- the most important thing about today, actually, I think, was a victory for the rule of law. People in Afghanistan are skeptical about the government. They're concerned about corruption and impunity. And to see the president, the most powerful person in the country, being held to account by an electoral commission is a powerful message for all Afghans.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Ambassador, remind us again, exactly what went wrong with the election in August that requires this fix?

RONALD NEUMANN: Well, you had -- you had, first, a lot of fraud. That is, you had a lot of very blatant ballot-stuffing.

I think you also had a problem that you didn't -- weren't -- because of the security situation, you were not able to get international observers, in some cases, Afghan observers, to many of the polling stations. That was a worse problem than we had in -- in 2005, when I was there for the parliamentary elections, for instance. So, that made it more difficult supervise.

You also had a big problem in this election with turnout. And I think it's very important to remember we have got two dangers we have to get through. One is legitimacy. The other is to make sure that you don't have a combination of weather and violence that keeps the Pashtun population that are in the most threatened areas from coming out and then feeling disenfranchised by the results. That would be a recruiting tool for the Taliban.

GWEN IFILL: Well, what makes -- what will make this different, this upcoming rerun of the -- of the previous election?

RONALD NEUMANN: Well, we do have some capacity, I think, to learn from our mistakes. One of the things that could...

GWEN IFILL: We, or they?

RONALD NEUMANN: Oh, I think both. I think both.

But, remember, this is a pretty new process. I mean, Afghans are -- are still pretty dubious about the idea that elections matter. We make a lot of assumptions as Americans that -- that things are normal in a certain way. And they're not normal to people who have known nothing but rule by force and diktat for 30 years. There are very few Afghans alive who remember the last time you had rule of law.

The debate at home and abroad

Ronald Neumann
Former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan
Our own domestic debate has made it almost impossible to pursue anything other than the two big choices of getting out or getting in.

GWEN IFILL: Let's talk about another assumption which Westerners may have, which is that this is a head-to-head between Abdullah Abdullah and Hamid Karzai.

How strong are Mr. Abdullah's chances in this rerun, or is this just going through the motions to make it seem as if things are -- are less tainted this time?

J. ALEXANDER THIER: Well, I think, among other things, the dustbin of history is full of people who make predictions about Afghan politics.

GWEN IFILL: And United States politics as well.

J. ALEXANDER THIER: Well, and that as well.

I mean, you know, there were a number of people who were in this presidential race -- I mean, there were 38 candidates, but a number of serious figures who were either in the election itself or who stood on the outside.

And there's the potential, I think, for a political realignment in the next two weeks, when people start to look at the future. Now, that doesn't say that, necessarily, Dr. Abdullah will win or has a -- has a -- is a very likely chance, but I think it would be wrong to discount him.

I think that there are people who are interested in change, who are looking to their own future, who don't feel they have a future with the Karzai government. And I think, if this election does indeed go forward, and is not scuttled by some sort of political deal, that Abdullah will -- will put up a serious fight.

And the factors that Ambassador Neumann mentioned, which is potentially low turnout overall around the country, violence, could mean that some of the safer areas of the country in the north and the west, where Abdullah might do stronger, might boost his vote total.

GWEN IFILL: Now, one of the things we're all waiting for here is to see what effect this rescheduled election will have on the Obama's administration's decision about whether to send more troops in or not.

We have -- and we have gotten some conflicting signals over the last couple days.

RONALD NEUMANN: We sure have.

GWEN IFILL: We saw Secretary Gates say, you know, we shouldn't wait. We should just get right to this and make the decision. And we have seen others in the administration, including Senator Kerry, actually say, you know what? Let's wait, let's get our partnership right, and then we will move on.

Which is the correct approach?

RONALD NEUMANN: Well, I think there's two things.

One is, we can wait a little bit. The world won't end. But, at the same time, we're sending a considerable signal of weakness. We are sending a signal that is perceived by Afghans, by Pakistanis, by regional powers as being indecisive.

So, I think what is the most important is the decision itself. Any decision that is much less than what General McChrystal has recommended is going to be seen in the region as a weakness, as a step back, and as a first step in American withdrawal.

And, so, I think our own domestic debate has made it almost impossible to pursue anything other than the two big choices of getting out or getting in.

U.S. needs a leading partner

J. Alexander Thier
U.S. Institute of Peace
The greatest danger we face in a place like Afghanistan is to be putting in more troops at a moment where the government is uncertain, the political situation is uncertain, or that the government appears illegitimate.

GWEN IFILL: What do you think, Mr. Thier?

J. ALEXANDER THIER: Well, I -- the only thing I would disagree with there is that I -- I strongly agree with the perspective that, ultimately, if we're going to succeed in Afghanistan, we need to have a true Afghan partner, and not only a partner, but a leading partner.

And I think that making significant decisions about the future of the campaign in Afghanistan without knowing who the leader of Afghanistan is going to be is -- is problematic, not only because the strategy might change, which it might, but it might not, but because, for the Afghan people, what they need to see is that their leader is up there on stage with our leader, literally or figuratively, and that they are on board with this decision.

I think the greatest danger we face in a place like Afghanistan is to be putting in more troops at a moment where the government is uncertain, the political situation is uncertain, or that the government appears illegitimate.

RONALD NEUMANN: But, Alex, you're not really going to know all that stuff. I mean, it's great theory, but, you know, and it is important to know who the partner is. And there's a certain amount of bargaining leverage you get out of saying, I won't make the decision, which at least gives you some power over maybe a little more honest election.

But, at the end of the day, you're not actually going to know how either one of them is going to behave, who they're going to appoint, what their cabinet is going to be like. This is going to be a process that has to go on for months, quite possibly for years. It's going to be a lot more art than science.

So, yes, you use the decision. You hold it off a little bit. You get what you can out of it. And, at the end of the day, it really isn't going to be much different.

GWEN IFILL: Final question for both of you. Power-sharing, is that an option?

J. ALEXANDER THIER: I certainly think that it is an option, that it's an option both in the sense that I think that Afghans are -- again, they're looking for credible government. They're not looking, necessarily, for the specific result of an election.

And, so, I think that Dr. Abdullah could potentially make some kind of deal, although I don't necessarily think that's on the cards.

RONALD NEUMANN: Could be good, if it works. If it's a kind of phony partition, and then they can't get along with each other, then you won't have made much difference.

GWEN IFILL: Ambassador Ronald Neumann -- Ronald Neumann...

RONALD NEUMANN: Thank you so much.

GWEN IFILL: ... and Alexander Thier, thank you both very much.

RONALD NEUMANN: Thank you.

J. ALEXANDER THIER: My pleasure.