Afghanistan's Election Won't Be Pretty, but It's Progress

Thursday, August 20, 2009

IT'S EASY to enumerate all of the ways in which today's election in Afghanistan will fall short of Western democratic norms -- or even of what Afghans themselves might have expected when they voted in the first presidential election four years ago. Violence has been escalating all year -- civilian casualties were up by a quarter through June -- and there has been a rash of major attacks in and around Kabul in the past several days. In parts of the country it will be impossible, or very dangerous, to vote. And many may feel uninspired: President Hamid Karzai, who is leading the polls in the presidential race, has barely bothered to conduct a public campaign and instead has sought to win blocs of votes by cutting deals with the same corrupt warlords who have plagued the country for decades.

For all that, the Afghan election represents another advance for a nation whose progress must necessarily be measured in small increments. The 17 million registered voters represent an increase of one-third over 2005, including millions of newly enfranchised women. Mr. Karzai has been challenged by several serious candidates and could be forced into a second-round runoff. As he reminded Afghans in a televised debate on Sunday (itself inconceivable in the Afghanistan of 2001), the country's economy and per-capita income have grown substantially in recent years.

The violence, though serious, is the predictable result of a new effort by U.S. and NATO forces to wrest control of southern Afghanistan from the Taliban. It's too early to judge how the campaign is going, but the principles behind it -- protection of the population and the construction of a viable Afghan army, economy and political system -- are the right ones. Success will require considerable time and patience -- and, almost certainly, more troops and other resources than the Obama administration has yet committed to.

In the shorter term, the administration will need to find ways to work productively with Mr. Karzai, should he win reelection. In recent months, senior U.S. officials and military commanders have often been publicly at odds with the Afghan leader, and both sides have some legitimate reasons for grievance. American policy should continue to aim at cultivating capable and uncorrupt local and regional leaders, and in encouraging Mr. Karzai to bring competent administrators into his cabinet. New policies to avoid civilian casualties could alleviate one of the largest irritants in the relationship. The Obama administration and the Afghan president will share a powerful common interest: demonstrating to Afghans that the government they vote for, in many cases at considerable personal risk, is capable of improving their lives.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company