The recent Afghan elections represent an important stage in that nation's reconstruction. Even more important than who won or how many voted is the apparent acceptance by the voters and the principal participants of the legitimacy of the process.
Elections are a key benchmark in any nation-building project, allowing failed states and divided societies to reconstitute a source of commonly accepted authority. Elections are also a source of polarization, however, even in a society as secure and ordered as our own. Too often, in societies emerging from civil conflict, elections prove too high a hurdle to surmount, their results are contested by the losers and their effects consequently perpetuate divisions in the society.
Nine years ago the United States and the United Nations supported a similar electoral process in Haiti. That election too was seen as the capstone of the American-led intervention begun a year earlier, and a key to America's ultimate exit strategy. That election, too, was marred by significant irregularities - some perhaps willful, most the results of inexperience and neglect. There too the United States and the UN adjudged the process, on balance, to have been free and fair, and urged the losers to accept their defeat gracefully.
In Haiti, however, the losers refused to be reconciled with the results or the winners. They denounced the results and have boycotted every national ballot since. Haiti consequently has never been able to constitute a government regarded, domestically or internationally, as fully legitimate and representative.
It is hard to know whether the voting irregularities in Afghanistan last week were greater or lesser than those in Haiti nine years ago. What is clear is that President Hamid Karzai's opponents, like the losers in Haiti's 1995 election, had no prospect of winning, no matter how scrupulous the balloting.
Opinion polling has made clear that Karzai will win this election, either on the first or second ballot, just as polling had made clear that in 1995 the supporters of Jean-Bertrand Aristide would sweep the legislative elections. The Afghan opposition now appears poised to acknowledge this fact, and accept the legitimacy of the result. The Haitian opposition was never willing to do so.
There are several reasons for this. One is that whereas Karzai has a candid, open personality, an inclusive political style and strong democratic credentials, Aristide is an opaque figure, given to strong loyalties and enmities, whose commitment to democracy was ever in doubt. The opposition in Afghanistan probably trusts Karzai to govern inclusively; Haiti's opposition never trusted Aristide to do likewise.
There is another difference between the two situations. In 1995 the Haitian opposition received strong support in their obduracy from elements in Washington critical of the Clinton Administration's decision to intervene in that country a year earlier. Divisions in Haiti and divisions in Washington have reinforced each other to this day, making reconciliation on that island impossible, and necessitating yet another American-led intervention earlier this year.
In contrast, American opinion on its intervention in Afghanistan has remained united. Consequently, the efforts of U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad to promote acceptance of the electoral results among Afghan factions have not been undercut by dissenting voices from home. The ability of the United States and the entire international community to speak with one voice in Kabul may prove of decisive importance in making the recent Afghan election, despite its irregularities, a positive step toward that state's reconstruction.
In a few short months Iraq will face an even more daunting electoral hurdle. There too various factions, minorities and disappointed challengers will have strong incentives to denounce a process they cannot win. There too the chances of nevertheless using this election to promote national reconciliation will be greatly enhanced if American and international representatives are able to speak with one voice.
Afghanistan's near neighbors, including Iran, Pakistan, Russia and India, have all supported the Karzai government and are probably seconding the efforts of the United States and the UN to urge all challengers to accept the results of the recently concluded ballot.
Achieving something similar in Iraq would greatly improve the likelihood of that election representing a positive step forward. The recent proposal by interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi to convene a conference of neighboring and other interested states in anticipation of the Iraqi election could help in this regard.
For that meeting to succeed, however, the United States will have to engage all of Iraq's neighbors as constructively as it did those of Afghanistan three years ago at the Bonn conference that installed the Karzai government.
James Dobbins is director of RAND Corp's Center for International Security and Defense Policy. He served as special envoy for Afghanistan in the administration of President George W. Bush and for Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo in the Clinton administration.
This commentary originally appeared in International Herald Tribune on October 20, 2004.