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Elections: Lessons from the U.S. Experience in Afghanistan (February 2021)

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Evaluation and Lessons Learned
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EXECUTIVE SUMMARY  

The U.S. government has faced serious challenges in helping Afghanistan build its capacity to prepare for, observe, administer, and adjudicate elections. As the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) put it:
Afghanistan is among the most challenging environments in the world [in which] to hold elections. It is a nascent democracy with an ongoing violent insurgency, an unverifiable number of eligible voters, many of whom are illiterate, and a country spread over harsh terrain. Corruption is pervasive, rule of law is tenuous where it has any hold at all, and impunity for election-related violence and fraud is the norm.1 Since 2001, the international community has spent at least $1.2 billion—including at least $620 million contributed by the U.S. government—supporting Afghanistan’s electoral process, including seven separate elections.2 This report was written to help policymakers and program implementers understand the challenges Afghanistan faces in holding its elections. The report covers more than 15 years of electoral assistance in Afghanistan. Its lessons and recommendations are intended to help U.S. government departments and agencies as they plan and implement electoral support to Afghanistan and other countries around the world. While peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government take shape, this report can inform U.S. electoral assistance during those talks (if they are prolonged) and any U.S. electoral assistance that may come after a possible peace settlement. Given the demand for reform since the 2014 presidential elections, much of this report’s analysis revolves around key events and processes of the last six years.   

Each chapter of this report focuses on a specific topic related to Afghan elections. The conclusion includes overall findings, lessons, and recommendations.

• The Introduction provides an overview of the Afghan and international stakeholders involved in administering elections, their various roles and responsibilities, and how U.S. and other donors have supported efforts to hold elections and build sustainable election institutions.

• Chapter 2 describes the challenge of administering elections in an insecure environment, and how election officials and security forces struggle to make the country secure enough for credible elections to take place.

• Chapter 3 examines the capacity of Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission (IEC) and raises concerns about its ability to manage and administer elections with transparency and accountability.

• Chapter 4 details Afghanistan’s history with voter registration that has made it vulnerable to fraud, as well as challenges to the country’s recent attempt to create a national voter registry.

• Chapter 5 describes the prevalence of fraud in the months and years leading up to an election, particularly how staff at Afghanistan’s two election commissions can be both perpetrators and victims of fraud.

• Chapter 6 examines the effect of fraud on the dispute resolution process after an election, and how fraud can be enabled and compounded by a lack of capacity and transparency at the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC).

• Chapter 7 details the Afghan government’s adoption of technology at polling centers to increase the credibility of elections, and how delays and other challenges have reduced the intended benefit of the election technology.

• Chapter 8 explores the challenges faced by election observers to serve as a check on electoral fraud and malpractice as they struggle to hire, train, deploy, and oversee qualified observers who can access polling centers in an insecure environment.

• Chapter 9 describes how the U.S. government’s sporadic support of Afghan elections, in which donor engagement and funding ramps up shortly before an election but drops off immediately afterward, has undermined efforts to help the Afghan government build sustainable election institutions and implement critical reforms to avoid repeating past mistakes.

• Chapter 10 concludes the report with SIGAR’s findings, lessons, and recommendations.   

To prevent Afghanistan from once more becoming a terrorist safe haven, the U.S. government has tried for years to help the country hold credible elections that result in legitimate government officials. However, the return on the U.S. government’s $620 million investment in supporting Afghan elections has been poor. Afghan electoral stakeholders do not appear closer to credibly preparing for, administering, and resolving disputes for elections than they were in 2004, despite the hard work of many in the international community. While assistance has sometimes yielded improvements, they have yet to last beyond the end of each electoral cycle, when most donor support recedes. As a result, Afghanistan’s electoral institutions remain weak, which undermines the confidence of the Afghan public in its government. As USAID in Afghanistan observed in 2018, “Elections are not yet perceived by the public as an effective way to influence public policy.”3 Expectations among donors seem lower than ever. Given unprecedented insecurity, political gridlock, and uncertainty around the prospect of peace, donors seem relieved that elections are happening at all. As one U.S. embassy official told SIGAR, some of the U.S. government’s greatest election successes are simply preventing worse outcomes, such as a cancelled election or a collapsed government.4 Several international officials working on Afghan elections have referred to their role as little more than “firefighting.”5 While the electoral process could eventually improve, the current course—marked by timeline-based, sporadic cycles of support—will force donors to continue reacting to crises rather than address systemic deficiencies. As it is currently structured, donor support is focused on achieving short-term goals, such as simply ensuring that elections are held, rather than achieving the long-term goal of creating a sustainable democratic process.   

A key finding of this report is that building the electoral institutions, civil society organizations, political parties, and democratic traditions necessary for credible elections will require continuous engagement. However, moving donors away from intermittent support focused on short-term goals and toward a steady effort focused on long-term goals will require a significant shift in how electoral support is provided. If election assistance in Afghanistan continues to be important to U.S. policymakers, the coming 2020–2025 electoral cycle—particularly the next three years—will be a critical time to stay engaged, politically and technically.   

Nationwide provincial council and district council elections—as well as parliamentary elections in Ghazni—were supposed to take place alongside the 2019 presidential election, but were delayed to keep the presidential election on track. Mayoral elections are also expected in the near future. If all these elections take place before the constitutionally mandated 2023 parliamentary and 2024 presidential elections, donors may again be preoccupied with just making sure elections take place. In that case, there will not be an “election cycle” for the next five years; instead, electoral stakeholders will be continuously responsible for disparate but critical stages of six different elections throughout the next five years. This would constitute the most overwhelming electoral schedule in Afghanistan’s history. However, it is possible that there will be further delays. If so, the next three years may be relatively quiet for election stakeholders and well suited to the kind of steady electoral support recommended in this report.   

While peace talks are ongoing, any intra-Afghan peace agreement that would necessitate an overhaul of the electoral or even constitutional framework could still be a long way off. Afghanistan will continue to need electoral assistance before, during, and after those talks are complete, assuming a deal is reached.  

The findings, lessons, and recommendations below are intended to help the Congress and the executive branch as they consider how best to support the electoral process in Afghanistan and, more generally, in unstable environments elsewhere.