Noah Coburn and Anna Larson on the Afghan Elections

Derailing Democracy in Afghanistan, Noah CoburnIn the lead up to the April 5th elections in Afghanistan, Noah Coburn and Anna Larson, authors of Derailing Democracy in Afghanistan: Elections in an Unstable Political Landscape have created Afghan Elections dedicated to observation and analysis of the 2014 vote.

The site includes posts about coverage of the election as well as on-the-ground reports about how Afghans are preparing for and thinking about the elections. A recent post on the site drew on interviews with Afghans about why they’re voting and what it means for the country. Other recent topics have included the threat of violence and the role of youth activism in the campaigns.

Meanwhile, in a recent op-ed in The Washington Post, Noah Coburn and Ronald Neumann argue that the United States must be realistic in expectations about the Afghan elections and react accordingly. The Afghan elections, Coburn suggests, will not be perfect—there will be corruption and disputed results. However, the need for stability is crucial and the United States must allow for the Afghan people to have the space and time to address the growing pains of a fledgling democracy.

Coburn and Neumann explain:

At this point, the United States needs to understand that what is most important in these upcoming elections is Afghanistan’s long-term stability. This is best achieved through a peaceful transfer of power to a new president with authority recognized broadly by Afghans. Democracy is, of course, important, and beyond a point its neglect would undermine stability, but the priority should not be on holding perfect elections. Afghans are likely to tolerate many types of procedural irregularities and small-scale fraud. Widespread violence and a breakdown of the tenuous political balance are likely only if these manipulations are seen as overtly propelling into office a candidate with little national support. Instead, Afghans are primarily preparing for both a national and, through provincial elections, local long-term renegotiation of political power. This is the challenge that the international community needs to focus on.

Coburn and Neumann conclude by stressing that while the United States does need to take a step back, they still have a crucial role to play in the elections and the future of Afghan democracy:

The initial U.S. response should be more focused on maintaining calm than on assessing how free the elections were; it should leave space for Afghan reactions to dominate. All of the political steps that are bound to follow Saturday’s voting must be Afghan-driven, but this does not contradict the need for a strong U.S. diplomatic role in maintaining the peace. Afghan voters and leaders still care deeply about whether their political system appears democratic to outside observers, and they care about electing a leader the international community will do business with. Many will seek to know whom the United States “really supports”; while the Obama administration should remain neutral, we should not expect our show of neutrality to be believed. It would also have an effect if U.S. officials were to speak strongly against a candidate, as many Afghans would not vote for someone whose election would mean the end of U.S. or international aid. Washington would be wise to prepare for a role as a quiet referee and potential mediator in the negotiations over fraud that is likely to emerge.

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