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Despite violence and threats, Afghans show enthusiasm for upcoming election

April 2, 2014 at 6:37 PM EST
The upcoming presidential election will mark Afghanistan’s first democratic transition from one elected leader to the next. Hari Sreenivasan examines recent terrorism and threats of violence meant to scare voters, and previews the election and candidates with Nazif Shahrani of Indiana University and Zalmay Khalilzad, former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan.
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TRANSCRIPT

JUDY WOODRUFF: Today was another deadly day in Afghanistan, prompting new fears over the safety of this weekend’s elections.

Hari is back with that story.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Police were on high alert outside the interior ministry in Kabul, after a Taliban bomber, wearing a uniform, got past several checkpoints and blew himself up. Six officers were killed, the latest violence in the run-up to Saturday’s presidential election.

In just the past week, the Taliban staged four attacks, including one on the election commission headquarters. The militants also warned voters again today to steer clear of polling places on Election Day. But the head of the election commission urged voters not to be deterred.

MOHAMMAD YOUSUF NURISTANI, Head of Election Commission, Afghanistan (through interpreter): I announce that we are committed to hold the election, and I call on our honorable people to participate in big numbers and cast their vote for their favorite candidate. I ask our people to ignore the security threats and prove to the world and your enemy that we are not scared and ready to vote.

HARI SREENIVASAN: On the streets, it seems Afghans are indeed ready. Hundreds of thousands have turned up at campaign rallies. All told, 11 candidates are running to succeed President Hamid Karzai, who is barred from a third term by Afghan law.

The three most prominent are former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani and former Foreign Ministers Abdullah Abdullah and Zalmai Rassoul, widely reported to be Karzai’s favorite. Many Afghans say they are eager to have their say, with stability, prosperity and security uppermost in their minds.

ALI JAN (through interpreter): People in general are worried about the security situation, but the upcoming election is a positive move towards changing our destiny. I hope everyone will participate in the election.

HARI SREENIVASAN: If successful, the election will mark the first democratic transition of power in the country’s history. Karzai has served since December of 2001, but his reelection to a second term was marred by allegations of extensive fraud. In addition, he’s been criticized for an unwillingness to tackle corruption.

Karzai also refuses to sign a bilateral security agreement allowing some U.S. troops to remain in Afghanistan. Otherwise, all foreign forces will leave by year’s end, and Afghan security forces will be put to the test in keeping their country safe. Karzai’s would-be successors are expected to endorse the security agreement, but none of them is likely to win an outright majority on Saturday. Instead, there’s likely to be a runoff, possibly in June.

For more on the significance of the upcoming elections in Afghanistan we get two views. Zalmay Khalilzad was U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan during the George W. Bush administration. He also served as ambassador to Iraq and the United Nations. He also was born and raised in that country. He now has his own business consulting firm. And Nazif Shahrani is an Afghan-American who’s a professor of anthropology at Indiana University.

Mr. Khalilzad, let me start with you.

Afghanistan has had two elections. Why is this one so significant?

ZALMAY KHALILZAD, Fmr. U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan: Well, this is significant because it’s the first time, as you said, or the report mentioned, a peaceful transition, democratic transition from one elected leader to the next.

And that has never happened in Afghan history. Number two, this is one where the Afghans have taken the lead in terms of security for the elections, and in terms of many of the institutions that oversee and organize the elections. This is much more an Afghan-run and Afghan-operated elections, although there would be some international observers.

And this is a constitutional test also for them, for the Afghans, because President Karzai cannot run again. And there was a lot of speculation whether he would actually allow another election. And it all looks like, all indications point to the fact that there will be an election and there will be a successor selected.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Nazif Shahrani, there’s been several questions about the validity of these results, even before the votes have been cast.

In a recent survey, only a quarter of the Afghan population that was asked the question thought that this would be a clean election or one without fraud. This is still a country where patronage networks matter, who you are related to matter, which tribe or region you come from matter.

NAZIF SHAHRANI, Indiana University: Well, it’s not just where people are from or what ethnic group or tribal group they belong to.

It’s the legitimacy of the government and the views of the government that will be conducting this particular election. And this is really the views that people have about the government in the last 12 years under President Karzai being one that has brought about corruption, mismanagement and abuse of power in many ways. This is, I think, the real reason why people suspect that this is not going to be a clean election.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Zalmay Khalilzad, I want to ask you, also this climate of intimidation that has been happening, at least in the last couple of weeks, from the Taliban, wouldn’t that call into question the number of people who actually turn out to vote and whether that was actually representative of the larger population?

ZALMAY KHALILZAD: Well, I think, in the last few days, you have seen a surge of registration. People, rather than being intimidated by the violence that has occurred — and the level of violence this time is higher in Kabul, especially, than it was during the first election, when I was there in 2004.

But I think there is enthusiasm. There will be likely more people voting in the coming election on Saturday than in the last election. And it is a positive. It’s not without challenges, of course. But I think the Afghans have shown, by the numbers participating in the rallies, by candidates crisscrossing the country, by presenting themselves, debating, that Afghans are reacting well to elections and to this process.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Mr. Shahrani, let’s talk a little bit about the outcomes after the election. Are any of these candidates likely to reach a negotiated deal with the Taliban and the war that is inside that country?

NAZIF SHAHRANI: Well, I think this is obviously going to be decided by the outcome of the elections, how — who is going to win, whether in the first round or in the runoff.

And then it depends on who the winner is. I think the winners have different strategies. Certainly, Abdullah Abdullah has been concerned by not giving up any of the gains of the last 12 years of international support and to the democratic development in the country, and that he will resist the Taliban perhaps more strongly.

With Ashraf Ghani, if he is winning, the chances are, at least in some of his rhetoric more recently, is that he may in fact go for negotiation. He claimed, even eventually got credit recently, that he has been behind the release of many of these Taliban from in prison that President Karzai has released recently, and he was claiming credit for those. So, presumably, those are some of the hints that he is with them or for them or will be willing to negotiate with them.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Mr. Khalilzad, you know, it hasn’t worked to try to take the sort of enemy of Karzai and gave them ministerships.

So, are there other tactics that this government can do to try to please or work with the Taliban in the south?

ZALMAY KHALILZAD: Well, it will not be easy. We will see whether the Taliban responds positively to the proposals or to the idea that all the leading candidates have, that they would like to come to a negotiated settlement.

There is a different in emphasis in terms of the prospects of getting an agreement and who one would negotiate with in terms of whether or not all-out Talibans can be negotiated with or only those that are willing to accept a new order in Afghanistan.

But I think will it be difficult. I believe the elections, if it goes well, will have a positive effect on the prospect for a negotiated settlement. How the security forces perform will be important. Also, whether the BSA, the bilateral security agreement, is signed will play an important role.

If all of that happens, I think prospects for a negotiated settlement will improve. That doesn’t mean there wouldn’t be challenges, difficulties. The devil is always, in these negotiations, in details, but I think, as a whole, the prospects would improve if those three things happen.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, Mr. Khalilzad, staying with you just for a second, you think an agreement would be signed if either of these three men win?

ZALMAY KHALILZAD: I think so. All three have said they will sign.

I think President Karzai will probably lobby against it, and he will have a loudspeaker nearby the palace advocating against it. But I’m optimistic because of the security needs of Afghanistan and more importantly because of the financial needs of Afghanistan. Unlike Iraq, Afghanistan cannot afford to pay its bills, so it needs international support.

And that support is more likely if there’s a BSA and if there are some forces still in Afghanistan from the United States and NATO.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Mr. Shahrani, finally, what differentiates these candidates? What are they running on? Is there something crucial?

NAZIF SHAHRANI: They really do not have much to offer in terms of differences amongst each other.

They are very much — perhaps the candidate that is attributed to be representing the interests of Mr. Karzai talks more about continuity. The other ones are talking more about maybe progress and change added to continuity.

But in terms of real action-oriented strategy for doing things differently, I don’t see much in any of them. And, unfortunately, it probably will be a continuation of more of the same.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right.

NAZIF SHAHRANI: And that would be a tragedy, because the country needs some kind of constitutional change.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Yes.

NAZIF SHAHRANI: And that’s what Taliban are also calling for.

But exactly what, that has not been discussed. And I think introducing some element of community self-governance, a decentralization of power might…

HARI SREENIVASAN: OK.

NAZIF SHAHRANI: … attract the Taliban to a negotiated settlement, especially if they can have a voice…

HARI SREENIVASAN: Mr. Shahrani, I have got to cut you off there, but sorry for — sorry for that.

Mr. Shahrani and Mr. Khalilzad, thank you so much for your time.

ZALMAY KHALILZAD: Thank you.