Obama's Afghan Hopes Meet Reality

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The aftermath of Afghanistan's elections has been uglier and more consequential than the campaign that preceded the voting. It has become clear that President Hamid Karzai's bid for reelection was tainted by widespread fraud, a development that represents the Obama administration's first significant failure in foreign affairs.

The administration had emphasized that its primary goal was a credible election process, not the victory of any particular candidate or group. President Obama and his aides had sharply urged Karzai publicly and privately to make this vote as close to fair and free as possible in a country at war. Karzai not only disregarded the pressure; he used it to campaign as a nationalist fighting outside influences.

The Afghan leader does not fall short in the chutzpah department or in cunning. He presented Washington with a fait accompli by stitching together a coalition of warlords and other corrupt local officials to deliver the results he wanted. Post-election U.S. efforts to get Karzai to bring his opponents into high positions in the government -- which would require them to stop voicing accusations of fraud -- do not change the underlying meaning of what happened on Aug. 20 and since.

The disputed elections are not simply a political embarrassment. They pose significant questions about the new U.S. counterinsurgency strategy of population protection, which was initially keyed to clearing areas contested by the Taliban -- largely the Pashtun-inhabited southern region -- to enable people there to vote freely.

But even in many of the "cleared" villages, Afghans refused to come out to vote, apparently fearing that in a matter of weeks or months the Taliban would seep back into their zones and seek vengeance on those who went to the polls.

Even more tellingly, Pashtun elders went to Kabul, sought out Western journalists and gave them detailed on-the-record accounts of how Karzai supporters falsified the returns from the elders' territory. This may attest to their new attachment to democracy and press freedom -- or, as I would guess, to their fear of how the Taliban would react to fabricated precinct results showing large pro-Karzai turnouts in their villages.

These are calculations that people engaged in civil wars live and die by. Those who reside in the territory that American, British, Afghan and other soldiers fought to clear will wait to see whether their communities do remain beyond Taliban reach for long. Only then will they decide to take the kind of risks the administration expected of them this time.

The White House initially described the elections as an unalloyed success story. But after the United Nations-backed Electoral Complaints Commission said Tuesday that it had found "clear and convincing evidence of fraud," particularly in the southern provinces, U.S. officials privately resumed criticizing Karzai. Still, they avoided any suggestion that the relatively heavy U.S. and British casualties this August had been in vain.

The continuing role of tribal politics in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan will also be studiously and deliberately neglected by the administration in public. That is unfortunate. The tensions between Afghanistan's ethnic groups hold the key to the administration's political and military strategies -- but an increasingly restive American public is not being told this.

Karzai's relatively poor showing among his fellow Pashtuns, who make up 42 percent of Afghanistan's population and nearly all of the Taliban's forces, is a danger sign for Obama's strategy of rapidly building up the Afghan National Army by adding U.S. trainers and other forces while moving to co-opt local Taliban commanders.

The Bush administration originally rejected such a strategy after concluding that Afghan forces lacked the "absorptive capacity" to field enough officers and sergeants to direct large Afghan formations. This was another way of saying that an army expansion that would have sent large numbers of Tajik and Uzbek tribesmen from the north into Pashtun areas to fight the Taliban would have created disasters.

The important debate is not the media guessing game about how many troops U.S. commanders may request beyond the 21,000 that Obama already approved. The more serious question is whether the escalation strategy can produce results on the ground fast enough to stem growing disaffection at home.

Karzai's failure to heed Washington's demands for a credible election process makes this harder. Obama is stuck with a damaged plan to which there is little immediate alternative. He needs to be more forthright with the American people about the sacrifices and obstacles ahead. It is the people who are ultimately responsible, and they need the facts to exercise that responsibility.


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