AFTER 12 years of poor leadership, corruption, and violence, Afghanistan is getting a badly needed second chance. Although votes in this month’s presidential election are still being counted, the results are already clear: Afghans resoundingly rejected the corrupt legacy of outgoing president Hamid Karzai.
Despite evidence of rigging and fraud, Karzai’s candidate fared poorly at the polls: Zalmai Rassoul appears to have received just 10 percent of the vote. The front-runner, who will face a run-off if he doesn’t get 50 percent of the vote, is former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, a longtime rival of Karzai’s.
It’s clear that Afghans want change. Karzai, who was wildly popular when he came to power in 2002, is now widely viewed as a fraud who used his position of power to enrich himself and his inner circle. Karzai’s erratic and unpredictable leadership style has exasperated donors and the Afghan public alike. For instance, Karzai asked a group of respected elders to decide the fate of a long-term security pact with the United States. Then, even after they endorsed it, he refused to sign it. Notably, both Abdullah, who currently holds about 44 percent of the votes, and former finance minister Ashraf Ghani, who trails behind at 33 percent, have pledged to sign the security pact if elected.
Abdullah is a promising candidate, for a number of reasons. He represents the cleanest break with Karzai, having run against him in 2009 and lost, probably due to massive vote-rigging. He is in a good position to rebuild relations with the United States, which have deteriorated under Karzai. He also might be able to mend ties with Pakistani officials, who distrust Karzai’s close links to India.
Lastly, Abdullah, who is half Pashtun and half Tajik, claims a connection to both the largest and second-largest ethnic groups in the country. He campaigned bravely in far-flung regions and received support from a wide array of ethnic groups, including key Pashtun figures in the south and east, who previously threw their lot in with Karzai.
Abdullah’s electoral success can be viewed as a firm rejection of the Taliban. He was a key adviser to the Northern Alliance movement that fought against the Taliban in the late 1990s. Due to this history, he might have a better formula for ending Taliban violence than Karzai, who often placated his power base in the Pashtun heartland by releasing captured militants. Abdullah has pledged to use a tougher hand against the Taliban to convince them that military victory is not possible, while at the same time leaving the door open for credible peace talks.
“When Abdullah pursues a peace process he will be able to invoke a certain inherent logic a bit like Ian Paisley in Northern Ireland,” said Michael Semple, a renowned scholar on the Taliban. “If you think of the Northern Alliance as the Taliban’s real enemy, then you need a northerner in the peace process. In a sense, the real deal is when the Taliban and the northerners agree to end their 20-year fight.”
The fact that the election took place at all is a sign that the Taliban’s grip on power may be waning. Despite its vow to disrupt the election “at any cost,” polling stations closed in just 13 percent of the country. To the extent that the Taliban attracted supporters who were angry about Karzai’s corruption, or who were outraged by the behavior of foreign troops, this year — which will bring a new president and a military drawdown — is a great opportunity to erode the militants’ raison d’etre.
Still, whoever becomes the next president of Afghanistan will face an uphill battle to get the country back on track. He will need tremendous support from the United States. That’s why it is worrisome that the Obama administration is reportedly considering dropping troop levels below 10,000, the minimum number the top military brass say is required to train Afghan security forces and protect US bases. While it is certainly time for the majority of US forces to come home from Afghanistan, drawing down to a purely symbolic number would deal a psychological blow to our Afghan allies at a time when they need us the most. That would be a terrible way to repay Afghan citizens for their courage in this very promising election.