White House has chance to foster Afghan future

Saturday, October 17, 2009

ONE FACTOR in President Obama's decision to rethink the strategy he adopted for Afghanistan was the fraud-riddled fiasco that was Afghanistan's presidential election. The United States and its allies were counting on the August vote to lend new legitimacy to the Afghan government and complement the military strategy of defeating the Taliban by winning over the population. Instead ballot-box stuffing on behalf of the incumbent, Hamid Karzai, threatened to further weaken a regime known for corruption and inefficiency. Within the Obama administration, advocates of abandoning the strategy have been saying it cannot work with such a compromised government.

Now that government and the administration have a chance to begin to remedy the problem -- if they do the right thing in the next few days. This weekend, Afghanistan's U.N.-backed Electoral Complaints Commission is expected to deliver its report; Afghanistan's ambassador to the United States said Thursday that it will probably reduce Mr. Karzai's vote to less than 50 percent of the total. That would mandate a runoff between Mr. Karzai and his principal challenger, Abdullah Abdullah. It could also prompt them to reach a power-sharing agreement.

Both courses have risks -- but either would be vastly preferable to a certification of victory for Mr. Karzai by the central election authority, which he controls. Obama administration officials are eager to prevent a runoff from being postponed until after the winter, which means it must be held in the next several weeks. So the administration must find ways soon to persuade Mr. Karzai to accept either a runoff or power-sharing.

This could be difficult for several reasons. One, of course, is Mr. Karzai: He has allied himself with warlords and appointed or tolerated corrupt provincial officials who are responsible for the fraud, among much else. But the Obama administration's handling of the Afghan leader has often been clumsy. It has held him at arm's length and derided him publicly; arguably it has helped to stimulate the behavior that some now complain of.

In fact, if the United States is going to keep troops in Afghanistan -- and Mr. Obama has said that it will -- it has no choice but to build and support the strongest government possible, both at the national and local levels. That is far from impossible: Afghanistan had a working national government through most of the 1970s and '80s. Such an administration would be welcomed not only by Afghans but also by Pakistanis who support secular and pro-Western democracy. Only Pakistan's anti-Western forces oppose a strong Afghan government.

The United States must pressure Mr. Karzai to make the right decisions in the coming days. But it must also make clear that it is willing to stand behind the Afghan leadership that emerges from this political process. It needs to forge a new working relationship with that leadership, one that will be centered on improving the daily lives of Afghans. A confirmation by Mr. Obama that he will provide the troops and other resources necessary to turn back the Taliban will by itself strengthen the government's authority around the country, and it could give it the confidence to take on necessary reforms. In contrast, if Mr. Obama withholds the resources that U.S. military commanders say they need, Afghanistan's government will look for other means of survival -- and Afghans will turn to other authorities.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company