During his U.S. visit, Iraqi interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi insisted that elections in his country will be held as scheduled in January. But, an optimistic timetable for Afghanistan's elections had been also laid out, but events on the ground dashed those projections.
Interim Prime Minister Allawi's confident prediction of an on-time election echoes nearly identical statements earlier this year by Afghan interim President Hamid Karzai, who repeatedly insisted that elections in his country would be held on time. But a lag in electoral preparation and a shaky security situation caused the polls to be twice delayed, and then finally split into two parts. The Afghan presidential vote is now scheduled for October 9th and parliamentary elections have been moved to next year.
Larry Goodson, a professor of Middle East Studies at the U.S. Army War College, sees no way that elections in Iraq - where there is a far stronger insurgency - can be held as currently scheduled.
"Frankly, the situation in Iraq is much less likely to produce elections on time in January as has been proposed," he said. "I can't imagine, barring a large-scale military operation by the United States, that the situation will be secure enough for people to run for office, campaign for office, or for people to feel comfortable about going out and voting."
Iraq has a better educated populace and is more secular than Afghanistan, where the predominantly rural population is poorly educated and more deeply religious. And the United States has a vast and powerful military presence in Iraq. In Afghanistan, the U.S. force is far smaller, and international forces are concentrated for the most part in the capital Kabul. However, the United States has sent an additional force of more than 1,000 troops to bolster election security in Afghanistan.
But, as Assistant Secretary of Defense Peter Rodman says, the overall U.S. strategy is basically the same in both places.
"That is the core of the strategy, that the legitimacy of an elected government will help us isolate the extremists politically even while we, the coalition and the Afghans, defeat them militarily," he said. "So in Afghanistan, as, I would say, in Iraq, the legitimacy of this political process is a way of empowering the moderates, strengthening the moderates, against the extremists."
But Mr. Goodson says early elections in Iraq will not necessarily translate into real political legitimacy.
"If we rush the process in order to get a kind of façade of legitimacy on the situation so that we can then withdraw, then I think that what we will produce for the long term in that region will not be very stabilizing or legitimate," he said.
Eighteen candidates - including Mr. Karzai - are running in Afghanistan's presidential polls. Remnants of the former Taleban regime and the private militias that control the countryside have tried to intimidate people from registering and have vowed to disrupt the polls. On Monday, a convoy carrying Vice President Nematullah Shahrani was attacked by remote-control explosives in northern Afghanistan, four days after Mr. Karzai's helicopter was rocketed as it attempted to land at a school in the south. So there have been no large campaign rallies or public speeches by the candidates, although as president, Mr. Karzai gets a lot of air time on Afghan radio and television.
Some presidential candidates have complained of political machinations by U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad in favor of Mr. Karzai. The embassy in Kabul has denied that Mr. Khalilzad or any of his staff were meddling in Afghan politics.
But Paula Newberg, a former special advisor to the U.N. Special Representative to Afghanistan, says she is nevertheless troubled by what she says is clear and open favoritism by Western nations for a Karzai victory. "I've worked in a lot of places where there has been war and there has been reconstruction and, occasionally, there has been an election," he said. "Afghanistan by far is the place where the international community has most explicitly uttered its preferences for a win before an election campaign has ever even started. I consider that to be a great disservice to the people of Afghanistan, who should be able to choose whomever they want to run their country."
No date has been announced for the legislative elections.