Elections: Lessons from the U.S. Experience in Afghanistan

Today, SIGAR released its eighth lessons learned report, Elections: Lessons from the U.S. Experience in Afghanistan. This report identifies lessons to inform U.S. policies and actions regarding electoral support. The report is embargoed until February 1, 2021 at 11:59PM Eastern (midnight Monday into Tuesday).

Key Points:

— 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. The return on the U.S. government’s 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. Afghanistan’s electoral institutions remain weak, which undermines the confidence of the Afghan public in its government.

— Electoral security is inextricably tied to overall security, both of which are steadily deteriorating. Since 2004, the number of planned and unexpected polling center closures on election day due to insecurity has steadily increased; effective Taliban attacks continue to increase; insurgent activity is closely correlated with lower registration and turnout rates; and fear for personal safety and fear while voting are at record highs. On the current course, insecurity alone will increasingly undermine the legitimacy of Afghan elections. 

— Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission has always suffered and continues to suffer from weak leadership, unqualified staff, minimal accountability for fraud and malpractice, and a structure poorly suited to decision making. Post-election staff purges, inexperienced leadership, corrupt hiring practices, inadequate training, and a shortage of qualified job candidates have contributed to a poorly trained and poorly motivated workforce. The capacity and integrity of election officials are critical components of an election’s credibility and merit significant donor attention. 

— Afghanistan’s national voter registry and the voter registration process are exceptionally vulnerable to manipulation and mismanagement that undermine the voter registry’s purpose of ensuring credible elections. Problems with the registry’s implementation hindered its ability to mitigate fraud. The number of registered voters in Afghanistan is improbably high, given the population size and low turnout shortly after registering, which likely indicates registration fraud. Malpractice and lack of transparency also undermine the credibility of the voter registry. 

— Afghan elections are regularly subject to fraud and manipulation through bribes, threats, or both. It is difficult to detect and prove fraud, and even harder to reduce it. Anti-fraud measures are often co-opted to perpetrate more fraud, and even successful fraud mitigation can end up suppressing legitimate votes, sometimes in ways that favor one group over another. Fraud is an ever-evolving target that cannot be eliminated, only reduced. 

— Afghanistan’s electoral dispute resolution process consistently suffers from political manipulation, incompetence, and a lack of transparency. The lack of clarity about the roles of Afghanistan’s two election commissions (the IEC and ECC), and open conflict between them, has repeatedly led to disputes that can undermine confidence in both the electoral dispute resolution process and the credibility of the election overall. Without transparency, measures to reduce fraud will be insufficient. 

— Technology has not improved the credibility of Afghan elections, but has merely added another means of contesting them. International best practices have shown that electoral technologies are most likely to succeed when their adoption is slow, transparent, and consultative—the opposite of how events unfolded in Afghanistan’s 2018 and 2019 elections. The use of election technology can exacerbate rather than reduce fraud or malpractice, especially if it is introduced hastily and without forethought and planning. 

— In their efforts to identify electoral fraud and malpractice, election observation organizations face significant obstacles, particularly insecurity, inadequate funding and training, and insufficient oversight to address corruption among their own observers. Election observers can increase the transparency and credibility of Afghan elections by publicizing electoral fraud and malpractice. In the absence of international observers or an independent judiciary, domestic observers are one of the few checks on election fraud in Afghanistan. 

— Donors make their electoral assistance less effective by being too cautious in their engagement with Afghan counterparts, by overemphasizing technical issues, and by focusing assistance around election day rather than throughout Afghanistan’s five-year electoral cycle. As it is currently structured, donor support is focused on achieving the short-term and important goal of simply ensuring that elections are held. However, if the long-term goal is ensuring Afghanistan has a sustainable democratic process, U.S. and international partners may want to focus more attention on building the capacity of Afghanistan’s electoral institutions. Election cycles are continuous processes that require constant donor engagement and support. 

To read the full report, click here: https://www.sigar.mil/interactive-reports/elections/index.html

To read an interactive version of the report, click here: https://www.sigar.mil/pdf/lessonslearned/SIGAR-21-16-LL.pdf

Elections: Lessons from the U.S. Experience in Afghanistan