Category Archives: Governance

Lessons learned: a very brief post-mortem of the 2014 elections

Inside the voting booth in Afghanistan

Inside the voting booth in Afghanistan

Regular readers of this blog realize that I almost completely refrained from election-related analysis here. This was partly because it is very difficult to predict Afghan elections, especially a field as wide open as this one. But after the announcement of the full preliminary results of the first round of the presidential election, we have enough information to do a post-mortem of some of the assumptions and the facts held to be common knowledge during the campaign period.

We can also add to the things we learned and list the new trends we observed this cycle. We still don’t have the full data about the election – turnout and voting behavior by various demographic cross-sections, for example – but we have enough to draw some lessons. Some of these lessons are classics in electoral politics, but in Afghanistan’s short-lived exercise with democracy, we are just learning them.

This list is not exhaustive, of course, so feel free to add your thoughts in the comments.

  • Marital status and the spouse’s religion don’t matter. Certain media outlets predicted that voters would be turned off by Zalmai Rassoul’s bachelor status or by Ashraf Ghani’s Christian wife of Lebanese origin. Pre-election polls never revealed these to be voters’ top priorities, which means they were largely made into campaign issues by the media and the punditocracy. Post-election results show no demonstrable impact of these factors on the candidates’ performance – Ghani and Rassoul came in second and third, respectively.
  • Money can buy votes, but only for the right candidate. IEC’s records show that the top-place finisher Abdullah Abdullah spent AFN10.02 million, which was almost double the second-place finisher Ashraf Ghani’s AFN5.6 million. This bought Abdullah 13 points…which is what we know to be true from Obama’s epic $760 million to McCain’s $358 million in 2008. But Zalmai Rassoul found that his AFN9.8 million didn’t win him as many votes as he would have liked, putting him 20 points behind Ghani – which is what Megan Whitman ($177 million) learned running against Jerry Brown ($36 million) for California governor in 2010. Of course, there’s no comparison between the campaign finance regulatory enforcement between the two countries and as the IEC admits a lot went unreported, partly because of an unrealistically low campaign spending cap. But in the 2009 election when there was no cap, Karzai spent a whopping AFN98 million, besting Abdullah’s AFN23 million.* The results speak for themselves.
  • Opinion polls have predictive value. The amount of doubt raised about opinion polls was almost equal to the coverage they received, which was ad nauseam. The campaigns that performed badly in the polls said they were inaccurate, the President banned opinion polling alleging they unduly influenced the electorate, and analysts said polls didn’t account for the expected widespread fraud. But most polls accurately predicted the order of the top three finishers – though the polls lacked the hair-width accuracy people have come to expect from polls in established democracies. The final opinion poll, released just days before election day, showed a difference of less than three percentage points between Abdullah and Ghani, but actual results show a whopping 13-point difference. Still, polls have a margin to improve their accuracy and a lot of potential for use by future campaigns, political parties and the citizenry.
Voters on election day

Voters on election day

  • We know how heavy the heavy hitters can really hit. Sayyaf and Ismail Khan, the Karzai family and Hizb-e-Islami all performed less well than expected. The Sayyaf-Ismail Khan duo only got 7% of the votes, with Khan failing to win more than 15% in any of the southwest provinces  expected to turn out for him. Karzai’s supposedly favorite candidate only won one province, and the Hizb-e-Islami candidate won none. Dostum only delivered Jawzjan for Ghani. On the other hand, Mohaqeq bagged the Hazara votes for Abdullah. He delivered Bamiyan and Daikundi and was behind Abdullah’s strong showing in Ghazni, Kabul, Ghor, Samangan, Wardak and Balkh.
  • Electoral politics have setbacks, and setbacks are recoverable. Lest we mistake Sayyaf’s 7% votes for his real influence, we should remember that Abdullah was the runner-up and Ghani placed fourth in 2009. The turn in Abdullah’s and Ghani’s fortunes shows that the electorate is open to persuasion, or somewhat more optimistically, the electoral institutions are capable of reflecting the will of the voters, or even more optimistically, that Afghanistan’s democracy actually kind of works despite the criticism.
  • Money mattered, but did Big Money? Abdullah outspent Ghani and ultimately outperformed him. One would imagine that with a campaign spending cap as low as AFN10 million, there wouldn’t be much space for giant donors, and this is borne out in the campaign contribution reports. My quick glance through all candidates’ reported incoming contributions showed that corporate donations were roughly around the half-million range (see example). In fact, the only million afghani-plus contribution to a campaign was AFN1.1 million by Helal to his own campaign (Ghani spent AFN2.3 million of his own money, but it wasn’t reported as a contribution to the campaign). All of this raises the question: where were the Fortune 500 of the Afghan corporate sector that bankrolled Karzai’s 2009 campaign and invested in Abdullah’s? It is not possible that all of them chose to sit on the sidelines and not contribute this year. A plausible answer is that the unrealistically low campaign spending cap just meant that 1. campaigns under-reported their spending to keep them within margins, so they didn’t report major contributions, and 2. the lion’s share of campaign-related spending didn’t occur through campaigns themselves. For example, the IEC admits that several candidates didn’t include expenses incurred in staging huge rallies in multiple provinces because those rallies were paid for directly by supporters and not through the campaign.** This unregulated and potentially unlimited money sloshing about the campaign trail is reminiscent of super PACs in American politics, with the major difference being that the Afghan super PACs are not formally recognized and can coordinate with campaigns on spending and messaging.
  • The “battleground” provinces didn’t decide the election. There were only four provinces where the top two candidates were within a five-point margin. They are Farah (Abdullah 35, Ghani 31), Nimroz (Ghani 30, Rassoul 33), Uruzgan (Ghani 27, Abdullah 23) and Helmand (Ghani 32, Rassoul 27). The vote in other provinces was so decisively in favor of one candidate or the other – exclusively between Ghani and Abdullah, except Kandahar – that if we take these neck-and-neck races out, the overall results would remain almost exactly the same.
  • The campaigning wasn’t ethnic but the voting was. None of the major candidates openly presented themselves as representatives of their respective ethnic base on national media. This was good in a deeply divided country. But it didn’t matter how they presented themselves, it mattered how voters saw them – which is why Ghani and Rassoul won in Pashtun provinces, Abdullah won in Tajik provinces, Dostum delivered Jawzjan and Mohaqeq delivered Bamiyan and Daikundi. If we take out Jawzjan, the vote was very clearly along north-south lines, just as it was in 2009.

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References:

* Data pulled from table 6 of this IFES paper on the 2009 elections.

** The IEC website has a pretty useful report, in Dari, about the reporting of campaign contribution and spending, and the challenges and recommendations.

Note: Any views expressed in this post are all strictly personal and do not represent the views of my employers, current or former.

The electorate is confused and the field is wide open

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The election season’s first public opinion poll results were released yesterday by TOLO News/ATR, with the headline that ‘initial election polling reveals three favorites.’ Those favorites are Dr. Abdullah, Ashraf Ghani and Qayum Karzai, respectively.  This is fascinating insight for Afghanistan, because popular punditry also had Zalmai Rasoul, Sayyaf, Gen. Wardak and Gul Agha Sherzai as among the top favorites, but they barely even registered (Sayyaf, for example, was the highest at 3.4%).

But the headline buried the lead, because 50% of the respondents to the survey said they do not have any favorites or have not decided whom to vote for, suggesting that the field is wide open. This means that even Gen. Wardak’s 0.8% could theoretically go up to 50.8%, making him president.

There are many reasons to take these results with a pinch of salt,* but the poll results show that the electorate is open to being wooed, that ethnicity will matter less and platforms will matter more. Unlike previous elections when ethnic blocks were represented by one premier ticket, this time those ethnic blocks are fractured — the Tajiks, Hazaras and Pashtuns all have more than one prominent person running.

In the absence of an optimal ethnic ticket, the so-called vote banks cannot vote based on their habitual reflexes but have to choose between several tickets. If voters were shoppers, and their trusted brand of toothpaste is on longer available, they are now searching for a good new alternative. A significant portion of the electorate is open to being influenced, and the ticket that most appeals to the voters and reflects what they want has a greater chance of winning.

This does not mean that ethnicity does not matter anymore, but it does mean that it matters less than in previous elections. A shrewd ticket would capitalize on that and instead of focusing on getting the best combination of warlords on the ticket, it would work on developing a platform and an effective campaign message.

The question then becomes about what the voters want. We have a fairly good idea of what they want for the country, which is security, economic development, reduced corruption, electricity and education, justice, etc. But there is a dearth of hard data on what the electorate wants in a candidate. We know that Afghans have always wanted peace but they have reliably voted for warlords; they have always wanted economic development but they have been swayed by candidates with religious credentials; they have wanted education but they have voted for conservative mujahids.

But people with technocratic reputations – Ashraf Ghani, Rasoul, Qayum Karzai, Abdullah and Wardak – dominate this field, and ethnic tickets are multipolar. The voters have to develop new calculations about what they want in a vote-worthy ticket, what factors matter more than others, and what attributes could replace or proxy for traditional ones such as ethnicity, religious and jihadi credentials, etc.

That could perhaps be the subject of the next TOLO News/ATR poll.

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* Reasons to take the poll with a pinch of salt:

  • Opinion polls are untested in Afghanistan, so we don’t know how well polls reflect actual voting patterns
  • It is still too early: tickets will change, alliances will shift, people will get disqualified
  • Opinion polls may not reflect who will vote and who will get to vote –  the Ministry of Interior says more than half of the polling stations are in insecure areas, and the Taliban say they will target anyone who becomes a candidate or votes
  • Opinion polls cannot factor in the amount of fraud/irregularity that is likely to occur
  • Two-thirds of respondents are in urban areas, which does not reflect Afghanistan’s actual population spread
  • Et cetera.

Note: I have expressed a lot of views in this post. The views are all strictly personal and do not represent the views of my employers, current or former.

Washington pundits get it wrong. Again.

Last week, Michael O’Hanlon of Brookings wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post calling for the US to “pick the winner” in the next Afghan presidential election. I wrote a critique of his piece and, as a sequel, proposed a list of five things the US should do instead of pre-determining the next Afghan president.

But now, Max Boot says Michael O’Hanlon “is absolutely right” to call for the US to pick the next Afghan president.

Boot is a senior fellow at the prestigious Council on Foreign Relations and, according to his bio, “one of the leading military historians and foreign policy analysts.” In short, a lot of people listen when he talks. Or writes.

While I generally agree with some of Boot’s ideas — like his call for more training, equipment and support for Afghan forces — I think his suggestion that the US install the next Afghan leader is wrong for two reasons: 1. it is predicated on faulty reasoning, and 2. it makes for bad, incoherent policy.

My critique of Boot is over at my UN Dispatch blog, but I hope to write a more comprehensive piece outlining my own ideas about the subject. As the election date draws nearer, the Washington debate about the subject will likely intensify.

As is usual in this town, I fear there won’t be many Afghan voices to counter the noise in the policy circles. The piece will up against those odds, but it’ll be a modest attempt hopefully to inject a degree of sanity in a debate that can sometimes be characterized by partisan slant and, honestly, skullduggery.

We’ll see.

5 things America should do instead of picking the winner – a note to O’Hanlon

This post is my second response to Michael O’Hanlon’s op-ed in the Washington Post calling for the US to pick the winner of Afghanistan’s next presidential election. My first response attempts to rebut O’Hanlon’s arguments, but this one seeks to set out alternatives the US should pursue instead of installing another dictator-president.

First off, let’s be clear: there are exceedingly important issues that the United States should expend time, treasure and effort on. These include working for the rights of women, children and minorities; managing the economic transition; tackling the crisis-level condition of the Afghan higher education; kick-starting the non-existent transitional justice process, etc.

In an attempt to remain fair and germane to O’Hanlon, this post focuses on issues relevant to the election. So, here goes…

  1. Protect, preserve and defend democracy by working to make sure the elections are fair, transparent…and logistically feasible and financially possible. This entails supporting the Independent Election Commission and the Electoral Complaints Commission, offering technical and logistical support during the elections, providing security to the voting population, etc.
  2. Offer adequate support to the next (democratically elected) president of Afghanistan so they can steer Afghanistan out of the dire straits of collapse while juggling the neighbors, the bureaucratic inefficiency, tackling corruption, managing to offer a modicum of services to the citizens, etc.
  3. Support and nurture the formation of political parties. History has shown that supporting individuals over institutions may have short-term benefits but it always has long-term costs. In this case, a robust political party system will keep the whims of Afghanistan’s president-cum-czar in check. And that’s in addition to the regular benefits of parties.
  4. Nurture the rule of law to help the next democratically elected president restore Afghans’ faith in their government and in democracy by promoting justice, equality and fairness, and eliminating arbitrary and summary justice, graft, nepotism, bribery and immunity for the powerful. These are the real issues that make life extremely difficult for Afghans; these issues also also have immeasurable social and economic costs for the country.
  5. Do minimal harm during the transition. These are fragile times, and there are more ways things could go wrong than vice versa. If things go wrong, there’s little room for repair; there’s certainly no time or energy for grand new plans. All actors are operating in this narrow strategic scope, and it’s exceedingly important to remain cautious and cognizant. Upsetting the political balance in Afghanistan by choosing winners is one way to get it wrong, so the US should avoid it at all costs.

Most of these steps are interconnected and some of them require investing resources, but they all function to consolidate and perpetuate the gains of the last decade — one of America’s key objectives and Afghans’ main desires.

Afghans deserve to make their own mistakes – a note to O’Hanlon

The Washington Post just carried an op-ed by Michael O’Hanlon calling for the US to “pick the winner” in the next Afghan presidential election. That’s right — he’s calling for the US to rig the elections, pick sides, pre-determine the outcome and strip Afghans for the democratic right to choose and the motivation to vote, which they’ve sometimes done at the cost of life and limb.

O’Hanlon doesn’t even pretend to say, even if tangentially and for the sake of political correctness, that the US should not play buzkashi with democracy but should rather protect the integrity of the election, strengthen institutions instead of individuals, nurture the rule of law instead of flouting it.

O’Hanlon is not a Washington nobody — he’s a senior fellow at the prestigious Bookings Institution and an advisor to CIA Director Gen. David Petraeus. That means he has the ear of people inside and outside the government, and his writings are not academic flights-of-fancy.

However, O’Hanlon’s idea not only makes for bad policy aesthetics but is also a dangerous option that displays a naive understanding of Afghan politics that I can only attribute to his attempt to satisfy a Washington audience.

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For the sake of argument let’s for a second agree with O’Hanlon: America has spent blood and treasure for a decade in Afghanistan, so it should have a say in who gets the job of preserving those gains.

This argument ignores that post-ISAF success in Afghanistan depends not on installing an individual but on the transition, on the stability of the political structure so Afghanistan does not implode — which is likely given the drastically reduced amount of cash and troops and the specter of ethnic fracturing in the ANSF and broader Afghan society.

O’Hanlon is asking the US to stake the success of the withdrawal strategy on the uncertain outcome of a tactical gamble. There is no guarantee an American-installed president will: a. last in office, b. follows America’s directives after coming to power, c. manages the change well, d. handles the neighbors, e. you get the idea.

If, with 100,000 American troops and billions in aid Karzai can defy America, the next president with little troop backing and even less money will most definitely do so too — because they have to survive in Afghanistan’s state-of-nature real politik by making deals. America’s support may be most critical in picking a winner, but it’ll inevitably be less crucial in keeping in him place because the balance of power will have tilted toward local strongmen, tribal leaders and warlords, which the next president will have to inevitably embrace as an insurance against the Taliban.

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But, for argument’s sake, let’s also grant O’Hanlon the benefit of the doubt and say the next president will be a competent individual who listens to America. Then O’Hanlon has to answer two questions: what will be the criteria for choosing the winner? And who fulfills them?

Says O’Hanlon:

But if the next Afghan president can be an even moderately serious reformer, the most likely outcome will not be pretty but will be better than defeat. [Emphasis added]

O’Hanlon doesn’t at all explain what reforms he wants to see, but he does rattle off a wish-list for the hand-picked dictator-president:

Should such a reformer prevail, the Kabul government will continue its struggle to contain the insurgency in rural locales while absorbing the occasional body blow in populated areas. But it will probably be able to hold onto major cities and transportation routes and keep the nation’s security forces intact.

Roughly two-thirds of Afghanistan’s population lives in rural areas and “population centers” outside major cities. A government that leaves them vulnerable to insurgent attacks has effectively ceded control of most of Afghanistan.

Anyway. Who does O’Hanlon think is “reform-minded” enough and can accomplish the above?

Possible candidates include Hanif Atmar, a former minister of both education and the interior who recently helped start a multi-ethnic political reform movement; economic wizard Ashraf Ghani; and the former foreign minister and presidential runner-up Abdullah Abdullah.

  • Hanif Atmar was a moderately successful interior minister but electorally, he is completely untested. But you don’to have to test him to know that he doesn’t have a popular base or strong tribal/ethnic connections. The motley group he has assembled into an ostensibly centrist party stands no chance in Afghanistan’s politics.
  • Ashraf Ghani is so unelectable that even the Democratic Party campaign whiz James Carville couldn’t change his fortunes in 2009. He’s seen as a Westernized Afghan with no political street cred. He lacks real tribal connections, something that putting on a patu and turban doesn’t change, a major reason why, according to David Sanger’s book, the US didn’t back him in 2009.
  • Abdullah Abdullah was moderately successful in the 2009 election. But after Karzai agreed to a run-off following major arm-twisting from America, Abdullah unexpectedly quit the race, making Karzai president and disappointing his supporters. His 2009 numbers were good largely in the North, indicating he lacks broad-based appeal.
Then again, in all three cases, why would legitimacy or popular appeal matter if you’re picking the winner? It’s not like we’re pretending it’s a democracy anymore.
And nobody blames O’Hanlon for the weak slate of candidates he’s proposed. Afghans themselves — from politicos to analysts — are decrying the lack of a national figure who could rise and unify the country ahead of the elections. So any candidate America chooses will likely suffer from the democratic deficit and inefficacy. And there are other side effects:

The prospect of America choosing the next winner terrifies the ethnic minorities, who suspect the US will choose an ethnic Pashtun who will continue to reach out to the Taliban, a move they oppose. (The US already picked Karzai in 2002 and 2004.) They see this as depriving them of any realistic (or fair!) chance of creating pan-national political parties or creating coalitions, taking away incentives to work within the democratic framework, leaving them little more than the stark choice of using alternative methods of interest articulation.

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O’Hanlon sells his call for picking the winner by saying there is Afghan demand for it:

Some may wish to avoid interfering in the elections of a sovereign nation, but Afghan reformers are calling out for help. When I visited Afghanistan in May, several suggested to me that the United States pick a winner so they could rally around him.

Yes, some political leaders would love for the US to pick a winner, but they want the candidate to be them — not someone “they could rally around.” If there are “reformers” eagerly clamoring for America to pick a winner, O’Hanlon neither discloses them nor offers any hints as to their identities. But we know this: no serious presidential candidate wants to be passed over, and certainly no Afghan wants to vote at the risk of life and limb in a sham election. Therefore, I don’t know where O’Hanlon found his “reformers” who can’t wait to support America’s next choice for Afghanistan’s president.

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O’Hanlon’s prescription for how to pick a winner is even more outlandish:

…a coordinated message from congressional leaders in both parties, President Obama and Mitt Romney could go a long way.

I have a hard time imagining even a first-semester freshman in American Government class argue that such unanimous consensus would be possible in an election year in the era of the Tea Party where compromise is a taboo, between-the-aisle politicians are an extinct breed and the political chasm is so wide that only the prospect of a sovereign debt default can force the parties to agree (and only barely so). And then there’s the Rohrabacher factor.

And Romney, running as the not-Obama, is doing his darndest best to distinguish himself from the incumbent (and bypass the sticky issue of ‘Obamneycare’). Expecting agreement on this issue that gives him no immediate poll advantage and casts him in the same light as Obama is far-fetched.

But O’Hanlon goes one step beyond:

U.S. diplomats, ideally backed by other foreign missions in Kabul, including such key Muslim states as Turkey, Indonesia and Tanzania…should also be willing to say, publicly if necessary, which candidates would be unacceptable as president.

Firstly, Tanizania does not have a mission in Kabul. Secondly, Indonesia’s and Tanzania’s preferences for the next Afghan president have absolutely no sway in Afghan politics unless it’s backed with resources (read money). And O’Hanlon does not explain how America will get Turkey on board. I don’t see any incentive for Turkey to squander diplomatic capital and effectively help steal an election in a Muslim country by serving as an American accomplice.

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Whether America picks a winner or not, it has the same finite amount of leverage in the form of monetary and military support. Using those resources doesn’t guarantee a positive outcome, but not using them is a guarantee the gains will evaporate. In both scenarios, there are more ways that the plan won’t work than otherwise. Consider:

  1. America picks a president, supports him and the outcome may be positive
  2. America picks a president, supports him, and the outcome is negative
  3. America does not pick a president, still supports him, and the outcome may be positive
  4. America does not pick a president, does not support him (contrary to its interests), and the outcome is negative.

In all four cases, there’s a systemic bias against positive outcomes (things will go wrong and American support is a necessary but not sufficient condition for success). So O’Hanlon is pushing America toward a litany of sub-optimal choices while incurring the added cost of a bad policy aesthetic.

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In short, O’Hanlon is calling for unspecified reforms by imposing nonviable candidates through impractical means in a gamble to the obvious detriment of the nascent, floundering democratic process.

Process that.

He is pushing for a terrible, terrible idea.

And finally, despite my own distaste for geopolitical analogies, I’ll mention this: The last time a superpower “chose a winner” before withdrawing from Afghanistan, the picture wasn’t pretty.

Similar chaos may spread again. Or America can allow the Afghans to make their own potential mistakes in their journey to democratic maturity.

Afghans are as invested in a positive outcome as America, and they’ve sacrificed as much, if not more, than the United States in the past decade for the gains that O’Hanlon boasts about in his article. They must have the opportunity to determine their own president.

Doing anything otherwise will tarnish America’s international image and fuel further disillusionment about democracy among Afghans.

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More:

Read the sequel to this post: 5 things America should do instead of picking the winner

Also:

Read Joshua Foust’s brilliant response to O’Hanlon: CIA Advisor Advocates Meddling in Afghanistan’s Election

Kabul could learn a thing or two from Kandahar

A recent insurgent attack in Kandahar left several ANP soldiers and Afghans civilians dead and injured. The tragic incident was live-tweeted by the Kandahar Media and Information Office (@KandaharMediaOf), which provided to reporters details about the developing story.

But the process was not one-sided. The folks at KMIC also interacted with journalists, providing prompt replies to their questions and, in one case, setting the record straight.

This is the kind of timely, responsive and open government that journalists dream of and that a society like Afghanistan is better off with. The KMIC seems to have realized that it is no longer enough for a government to just throw information out at the world and expect its narrative to stick. Communication, especially on social media, is no longer unidimensional — it’s more than just a press release.

Let’s take a look at one of the KMIC’s exchanges.

The tweet above prompted a question from an Afghan journalist and an explanation from the KMIC:

And when the AP’s Afghanistan correspondent tweeted about their Kandahar office, the KMIC responded thus:

Journalists who have worked in Afghanistan realize how unique this operation is. Many journalists find the Taliban’s spokesmen and media operation more responsive and more prompt than Kabul’s Government Media and Information Center (@GMICafghanistan), which has had its social media difficulties. Here’s an excerpt from a previous piece I wrote on this subject:

BBC producer and reporter in Kabul Bilal Sarwary sounded off about GMIC’s lackluster performance, saying GMIC is “late by hours” compared to the Taliban in reporting “on news and events.”

In the guise of the KMIC, the Taliban seem to have met their match. And in that, there’s something for Kabul to learn from.

International experts have spent countless hours and millions of dollars to set up the GMIC and train its staff, but this is one lesson the GMIC could learn on its own, just by looking at Kandahar.