The Election Question

NEW DELHI – With street protests roiling democracies from Bangkok to Kyiv, the nature and legitimacy of elections are once again being questioned. Are popular elections an adequate criterion by which to judge a country’s commitment to democracy? Beginning next month, elections in Afghanistan and India will throw this question into even sharper relief.

Afghanistan will hold a presidential election on April 5. But a smooth electoral process is far from guaranteed – especially given that US President Barack Obama has already informed Afghan President Hamid Karzai that the United States and NATO have no choice but to withdraw their troops by the end of this year.

The US and NATO would prefer to avoid an abrupt and complete withdrawal – a preference that Afghanistan’s neighbors share, fearing that any resulting disorder would spill over their borders. The problem is that Karzai has refused to sign a painstakingly negotiated bilateral security agreement governing a post-2014 US-NATO mission in Afghanistan, leaving Obama with little choice but to begin contingency planning. The only conceivable alternative would be to await the next president’s inauguration, in the hope that Karzai’s successor would formally accept the agreement.

Karzai’s intransigence is rooted in his desire to launch a peace process between the government and the Afghan Taliban – similar to that which Pakistan has initiated with its own Taliban. He believes that the security agreement with the US could be a useful bargaining chip in such negotiations. But this view fails to account for the potential consequences of a premature withdrawal of US and NATO forces, including diminished morale among Afghan forces and renewed hope among the Taliban that they will be able to retake control of the country relatively soon.