'Peace industry' must stop violence in Afghanistan from derailing elections, says expert

An eruption of violence in Afghanistan is threatening to destabilize elections later this year, but what can the global community do to protect democracy worldwide?

Elections offer extremists 'a great strategic target'

The aftermath of a second blast in Kabul, Afghanistan on April 30, which killed several journalists. (Omar Sobhani/Reuters)
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As a slew of deadly attacks in Afghanistan threaten to destabilize elections later this year, the "peace industry" trying to curb its impact may not go far enough, an expert says.

Jonas Claes, a senior program officer at the U.S. Institute of Peace, said that a "peace industry" has sprung up around protecting the democratic processes in post-conflict societies. International players include the United Nations and European Union, while individual countries can offer support through their embassies and government organizations.

"The problem is that usually these organizations arrive rather late — a few months before the elections and then they parachute back out the day after the elections, or after the results are verified," he told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

"In my opinion, this is a very short time frame to make a difference and to change attitudes and behaviours."

An Afghan young woman shows her inked finger after casting her vote at a polling station in Herat, Afghanistan, Apr. 5, 2014. (Hoshang Hashimi/Associated Press)

In Afghanistan, extremist groups see the elections as a "great strategic target" in their bid to undermine the fledgling democracy, he said.

One week ago, an attack at a voter registration centre in the city killed 57. In January, a car bomb killed 95 people, while in the same month militants stormed a luxury hotel there, killing at least 20. This spike in attacks — by the Taliban, ISIS, and other armed groups — comes as the country prepares for parliamentary elections in October.

"You have large groups of people that are in line, either to register or soon enough to go out and vote," he said.

"You also have good physical targets with polling stations, party headquarters. We also have increased international focus on the country."

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      There were multiple bombings in Kabul on Monday, killing at least 25 people. Several of those deaths were journalists who had arrived to cover an earlier blast, when they were reportedly targeted by a suicide bomber armed with a press pass. One of those who died was Shah Marai, the chief photographer for Agence France-Presse, who had covered life in Afghanistan for years. These are some of the images he captured over the years.

      Claes noted that "prevention always starts at home."

      Police work is critical, he said, both in mapping hotspots to prevent attacks, and building community trust. That trust can be complemented with civic education offered by both the international community and by local civil society. Those same groups, together with official election commissions, can help with monitoring and observation, reassuring the public in the integrity of the process.

      Claes encouraged thinking outside the box, and examining alternatives to formal election processes. The traditional Loya Jirga in Afghanistan — which translates to "grand assembly" — gathers regional leaders to make decisions by consensus.

      "Clan elders will appoint the leaders indirectly," he said, "because it's simply unsafe to put voters in long lines at voting stations.

      "They form a perfect target for some of the violent actors in that region."

      Listen to the full audio near the top of this page, which includes a conversation with Ali Latifi, a freelance journalist in Afghanistan, about the escalating violence.


      This segment was produced by The Current's Idella Sturino and John Chipman.

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