Afghanistan's September 18 parliamentary elections are an important and historic milestone marking progress in the development of a stable democracy in that war-torn country. Afghanistan elected a president, Hamid Karzai, last year for the first time in its history, and the elections for parliament are expected to broaden and deepen the country's nascent democratic political system. According to recent reports, the Pentagon may cut back the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan if the elections proceed successfully. This would be a dangerous gamble, given the enormity of the tasks that lie ahead for Afghanistan's government.
This will be Afghanistan's first parliamentary election in almost three decades. Roughly 5,800 candidates are seeking election to 249 seats in the lower house of parliament (the "House of People") and to the 34 provincial councils that will subsequently help select the members of the upper house of parliament (the "House of Elders") in 2006.
The Taliban has made a limited but violent resurgence in eastern Afghanistan and recently launched a series of attacks to disrupt the elections. More than 1,200 Afghans, including roughly 600 insurgents, have been killed this year, making it the worst year of violence since the Taliban was overthrown in 2001. Operating from bases in the Pushtun tribal belt in neighboring Pakistan, the Taliban has deployed small groups of insurgents across the border to attack government forces, assassinate local officials, and intimidate voters. At least four election workers and six candidates running for election have been killed. On September 13, insurgents murdered seven Afghans merely because they carried voter registration cards.
Afghanistan's 48,000 police and 21,000 army troops will be mobilized to protect the 6,000 polling stations on election day. These Afghan forces will be backed up by U.S.-led coalition forces of roughly 21,000 soldiers, along with a separate force of 11,000 NATO-led peacekeepers in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). ISAF troops, drawn from 35 countries, presently are deployed in the capital of Kabul and in cities in northern and western Afghanistan.
Pakistan has deployed about 80,000 troops along the border but has turned a blind eye to Taliban activity among its own restive Pushtun minority, which remains more anti-Western and pro-Taliban than the Pushtuns who historically have dominated Afghanistan. The United States should pressure the Pakistani government to actively disrupt cross-border Taliban operations and arrest Taliban leaders who have found sanctuary with Pakistani Pushtun tribes along the border.
Assuring the security of voters on election day is a top priority. Although the Taliban-as well as its allies in Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hezbi Islami (Party of Islam) and Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda movement-failed to disrupt the October 2004 presidential elections, their insurgency appears to have grown stronger since then.
The elections are expected to help build the popular legitimacy of President Hamid Karzai's young government. But the real test will come after the elections. Popular support for the government, which presently has little authority outside Kabul and the major cities, will expand to the degree that the government can provide security, help grow the economy, and provide services-especially health care, education, and the rule of law.
The United States and its allies must remain actively engaged in boosting the capacity of the Afghan government to address Afghanistan's many problems. The tasks it faces are daunting. It must protect its own people from insurgent attacks and criminal warlords, rebuild Afghanistan's shattered infrastructure, aid the return of more than one million destitute refugees, and help solve the country's dire housing shortage, appalling lack of healthcare, and massive unemployment.
The Afghans also will need extensive outside help to eradicate the flourishing opium trade without undercutting support for the government. This means helping poor farmers find alternative means of supporting their families while cracking down on the drug lords who buy their crops, refine the opium into heroin, and move the illegal drugs to markets outside Afghanistan.
But the Karzai government will be unable to resolve this long list of problems unless its officials and supporters are assured protection from the increasingly bold insurgents. It would therefore be a mistake to prematurely withdraw American military forces from Afghanistan. Yet recent news reports suggest that the Pentagon is considering cutting U.S. troops by 20 percent by early next year if the elections go as planned and the situation on the ground improves.
This would be a risky move. Afghan guerillas historically suspend most of their activities during Afghanistan's grueling winters and return to their home villages or camps in Pakistan to rest and regroup. They then remobilize in the spring and resume their attacks. While the U.S. military presence could safely be reduced during the winter months, prudence dictates that it should be increased again in the spring, when the fighting season resumes after the snow melts.
The ISAF peacekeeping force also should be expanded in size and given greater responsibility to protect Afghan cities and major transportation routes from insurgent and criminal attacks. NATO also should play a greater role in training the Afghan army and police, who must begin to take the lead in restoring security and the rule of law.
Hopefully, Afghanistan's parliamentary elections will proceed without bloodshed. But even in the unlikely event that they are held without violent disruptions, the United States and its allies cannot afford to be complacent about Afghanistan. Much remains to be done to help Afghans build a secure, peaceful, and hopeful future.
For more on Afghanistan, see "Helping Afghans Fight for Themselves," "After the Victory: America's Role in Afghanistan's Future," and "Defusing Terrorism at Ground Zero: Why a New U.S. Policy is Needed for Afghanistan," all available at heritage.org.
James A. Phillips is Research Fellow in Middle Eastern Studies in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation.