Afghanistan votes – ‘Our problem is we have no Mandela’

On April 5 Afghanistan's 12-million registered voters go to the polls to elect a new president. The polls will mark the first transfer of power since the Taliban government fell in 2001, in a country ravaged by three decades of war and cursed by it's geography.

Nicholas "Fink" Haysom, a former legal adviser to Nelson Mandela, is the UN secretary general's deputy special representative for Afghanistan. Karen Allen interviewed him earlier this week. 

Mail & Guardian: There was concern during the 2009 elections that the process was flawed with widespread election fraud. What is different this time around given that some of the candidates have expressed concerns about fraud? 

For starters, more than 10 000 domestic observers and 250 000 candidate and party agents have received accreditation to monitor the elections – this is already a major increase compared to previous election cycles and their presence represents one of the most effective instruments to detect and deter malpractice and fraud. Observation will primarily be carried out by domestic groups. International observers add an international perspective as well as expertise – but they can't match the numbers, coverage and access of domestic observers, who are the guardians of the electoral process. Also, for the first time, we have seen real co-ordination by these observers. 

At the same time, candidates bear the primary responsibility for preventing fraud by instructing their supporters not to commit fraud in their names. Most of them have done this. In addition, there has been a considerable number of technical improvements enabling prevention, detection and excision of fraudulent votes. 

M&G: How will election observers be able to monitor the process when there are so many violent incidents at the moment?

Will there be violence on election day? Sadly, it's hard to imagine it being otherwise. But will there be enough violence to deter such a large number of people – made up mainly of committed Afghans voters and observers – playing a monitoring role? The sense that colleagues and I have picked up from our interaction with Afghans is that there's a real determination to vote, to monitor and to resist intimidation. It's also worth keeping in mind that, until recently, the overall number of violent incidents across the country is lower when compared to previous election cycles – although the perceptions might be different given the high-profile attacks we have seen around Kabul though. Of course this is no guarantee as to what will happen on election day. 

M&G: What guarantees are there to ensure that the Taliban does not return to power in Afghanistan once foreign forces leave? 

There is one thing which gives cause for hope: Afghans themselves have indicated a preference for a democratic future and the enthusiasm shown in these elections this Saturday is evidence of that. 

Ironically, these elections will provide Afghanistan with a mandated leadership and fresh set of interlocutors in moving forward with broader reconciliation processes. While a breakthrough in direct talks – in a process that can only be between Afghans – remains elusive in the short-term, efforts to build an environment conducive to such formal efforts must continue, and peace is a necessity for the long term. 

Afghan security institutions took lead responsibility last June for their country's security, and the Afghan army and police are stepping up to the challenge. Even if there might be some deterioration in some areas after 2014, most analysts expect them to hold their ground overall. 

Finally, Afghans will not stand alone despite the departure of foreign forces. Their departure doesn't mean an end to the international community's engagement. The United Nations has been working in Afghanistan, in one form or another, for decades – we expect that we'll be here for some time to come. As for the broader international community, I think its commitment to Afghanistan can be seen in the level of international assistance. This remains truly exceptional. The Tokyo framework, the agreed instrument of civilian development assistance, together with commitments made at Nato's Chicago summit for the support of the security sector, forms the cornerstone of a long-term international commitment to support Afghanistan. 

M&G: Given the ongoing insecurity, what genuine potential is there for the government of Afghanistan to generate its own revenues, from example mining? What kind of timescale ​ if security were to remain the same is there before it can extract meaningful revenues from mining? 

I think this may take longer than expected. There needs to be peace and stability before any real sustainable economic development can really take root. There are no quick fixes and Afghanistan is a poor and land-locked country. 

M&G: There has been engagement from representatives of other post-conflict societies – example Northern Ireland – to learn lessons and share experiences. Has there been any engagement from South Africa and are there any lessons that can be learnt from South Africa's own experience of transition? 

There hasn't been any formal engagement as such. But the one thing that has struck me as Afghans prepare to vote for a new president this weekend, is the intense debate over the attributes of a candidate capable of leading this divided country through its transition. I have been told a few times by Afghans that "our problem is that we have no Mandela". While every country is different, broadly-speaking, I think the South African experience yields some lessons to learn from Afghanistan, like South Africa, is evidently a country where the past wrestles with the future. 

M&G: There are no South African troops in Afghanistan but given the experience in sectors such as security and mineral extraction, do you see much potential for South African investment? 

As mentioned earlier, peace and stability need to be in place for any potential investors, from South Africa or elsewhere. In addition to stability, there needs to be an enabling legal environment. But there's no doubt about it, such investment will be crucial.

Karen Allen is a BBC Foreign Correspondent covering Africa and Afghanistan.

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