Afghanistan polls risk spiralling out of control

Published : 28 Sep 2019 05:55 PM | Updated : 07 Sep 2020 04:40 PM

Elise Burr and Andrew Shaveris

Tomorrow, Afghanistan will hold its fourth presidential election since the Taliban government’s fall in 2001. Since the United States and Taliban’s recent breakdown in negotiations, Taliban has killed at least 58 civilians. And that may be about to get worse. In earlier presidential elections, the Taliban has tried not to kill civilians when they go to vote. The Taliban has avoided hurting voters for a reason:

In a study published in American Economic Review in 2018, one of us, Andrew Shaver, and his colleagues examined detailed Department of Defence wartime records of the Taliban’s violence shortly before and during elections between 2003 and 2014.

Tracking insurgent activity by the hour, the study found the Taliban carried out an extraordinary number of attacks on election days — but that it avoided hurting civilians in those attacks. For instance, the Taliban tended to concentrate violence during election days’ early morning hours, before citizens travelled to the polls — which wasn’t the case with attacks on nonelection days. Based on this and other evidence, they concluded that the Taliban tried to scare people away from voting — instead of harming them for doing so.

Although the Taliban tried to disrupt elections, it also tried to avoid paying the cost of harming civilians. When insurgents in Afghanistan and beyond harm civilians, civilians respond by informing government forces about the insurgents.

Conditions in Afghanistan have changed since then. That’s for two reasons:

1. The Taliban may no longer worry as much about the cost of harming civilians. Civilian tips may have hurt the Taliban when US-backed Afghan government forces could more readily act based on that information. But now, the United States has only about 14,000 troops in the country — far fewer than the roughly 100,000 it had in 2010. 

2. Because a negotiated settlement with the United States is possible, the Taliban may be more willing to harm civilians. The Taliban and the United States may be closer to reaching a settlement now than they have been over many years of fighting. Although the most recent negotiations ended without a deal, the Taliban has indicated that “doors [remain] open for negotiations” even as it pledges to continue its fight against foreign “occupation.”

In the past, the Taliban sought to outlast international forces deployed to Afghanistan. That longer-term perspective may have given them a reason to refrain from violence to avoid stirring up significant public opposition.

But facing a potential agreement with the United States, this calculation likely changes. The Taliban may be more willing to attack if it thinks that helps to reach its goal. During negotiations this month, the Taliban reportedly intensified violence in an apparent effort to improve its negotiating position, in two ways.

First, doing all it can to disrupt elections can signal to US negotiators that it is willing to destabilise the country. There’s another possibility. With recent news coverage focused on Afghanistan, the Taliban might use deadly violence on this highly publicised day to try to increase American public opposition to keeping US troops in Afghanistan — especially while the United States is entering a highly contested election season.

The Taliban may be using violence to scare voters away from the polls, but will try to avoid harming civilians on Election Day, as in the past. But maybe not. If the Taliban’s logic has shifted, voters may be walking into more risk of violence than in the past. Election-security planning based on previous levels of Election Day violence may leave civilians exposed to attacks.

In the 2014 election, a coalition of Afghan media outlets effectively boycotted reporting on Taliban attacks during the second round of voting, in an effort to minimise the Taliban’s influence on the vote. Of course, restricting reporting, even voluntarily, involves difficult trade-offs between the free flow of information, on the one hand, and national security, on the other. But if the Taliban believes that it won’t get credit for destabilising Afghanistan, it has one less incentive to attack. If Afghan media outlets even suggest that it’s possible they won’t report on attacks in a timely way — whether or not they do minimise or delay such coverage — that might affect the Taliban’s calculations.

Elise Burr is a political columnist. Andrew Shaveris teaches political science at the University of California