Afghanistan election runoff poses daunting challenges

A second round of voting in the Afghanistan election, set for Nov. 7, adds security and logistical difficulties to a process already marred by fraud.

Musadeq Sadeq/AP
An election poster that asks the people to vote is seen in Kabul, Afghanistan on Tuesday.

Flanked by a slew of international statesmen Tuesday, President Hamid Karzai put a second round Afghan election on the calendar, adding daunting new security and logistical pressures to an already deeply troubled election effort.

To this point, observers widely doubted the fraud-marred election would go into a runoff. But Mr. Karzai went for a runoff, rejecting speculation that he and his rival, Abdullah Abdullah, would sidestep another vote through a powersharing deal.

"A coalition government, no, there is no place for a coalition government in the law. There is no legitimacy in that," Karzai told reporters. "A new set of elections will be held in about 14 days' time," he added.

On several occasions, Karzai mentioned "14 days," the window given by the Constitution. Such a rapid runoff would be extremely difficult to conduct and – for it to inspire confidence – would require an immediate, major mobilization of people, money, and institutions.

"If all of the [stakeholders] move quickly, then it is possible to conduct – not in two weeks, but before the snow falls," says Ahmad Nader Nadery, head of the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan. "If we are committed – the government, the Independent Elections Commission, the international community, we the civil society – if we are all committed to making a change … then I think it will be a different election."

Among the tasks:

• The United Nations needs to release funds for poll workers, observers, and transport of materials.

• The election commission says it must rehire workers, replacing those implicated in fraud the first time, and put them through a one-week training course. Mr. Nadery adds that fraud won't be tamped down in the commission without top heads rolling and investigations initiated.

• Local and international observers would also need to be mustered. Nadery figures he could gather 5,000 Afghan observers in two weeks – 2,000 less than Round 1.

• International and Afghan security forces would have to mobilize troops to defend polling centers.

Security remains a top concern because it has a big impact on the ultimate question hanging over any runoff: Would anyone even show up to vote?

"We just voted one time, and we are not going to vote again, because in our province of Baglan, the Taliban cut the fingers off our friends because they voted," says Abullah Paiman, a university student in Kabul who voted for Karzai. "If we vote again, next time the Taliban will cut our heads off."

Earlier Tuesday, the ministries of Interior and Defense refused to talk about any security plans they might have for a runoff until that was the official verdict.

However, in the first round, it took the Afghan National Army 15 days to reposition troops in advance of the vote. The troops had difficulty hitching enough rides from the international air forces.

Col. Waine Shanks, a spokesman for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), says the international military coalition has "been planning for this eventuality for quite some time" and that implementation would just require "some minor repositioning."

Asked if ISAF with Afghan forces could protect the voters, he said: "We will do our best."

Standing beside Karzai at the press conference Tuesday, Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts used a similar phrase: "Everyone is committed to do the best we can to take the lessons of the last election and apply them rapidly in the next few days."

Those are not the kind of words some Afghans were hoping to hear.

" 'Our best' is not a good term," says Khalid Pashtoon, a member of parliament from the southern province of Kandahar. The international community must speak convincingly that safety will be assured, or voters will not dare venture out, he says.

Given the daunting challenges of the runoff, and the costs in resources and blood to be borne by Afghans and foreigners alike, a negotiated settlement had been the conventional wisdom in Kabul until today's strong statements from Karzai and Mr. Kerry.

"It's not that it's not a scenario any more," says Martine van Bijlert, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network. "But if it's a likely scenario, you don't come out that strongly saying there will be no coalition government."

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