After more than a decade at war, it’s hard to pick winners and losers in Afghanistan. Much blood has been spilled, many lives lost, and billions of dollars spent on the effort to resuscitate the Afghan state since the United States toppled the Taliban in 2001. As the country prepares to hold national elections next week, many Americans are rightly asking whether a gamble on an extended US military presence there beyond 2014 will really ever pay off. With violence on the rise, many Afghans likewise are wondering what they will get out of a bilateral security deal with the Americans.
There are good reasons to be skeptical of the efficacy of a prolonged US presence: If the presidential and provincial elections result in yet another debacle, Afghans and Americans alike have little to gain. The only way for either side to “win” is the election of an Afghan leader who is genuinely prepared to battle corruption and underdevelopment while fighting hard for an inclusive peace deal. If stability is to be achieved, that deal must envision a constitutional reapportionment of political power, an end to the insurgency, and, yes — the full withdrawal of foreign forces before the next Afghan president is selected in 2019.
Failing a credible election and smooth succession of power in Kabul, the United States will have little reason not to simply leave the country to its own fate. No number of American boots on the ground will be able to pull Afghanistan out of the ensuing political tailspin and resulting chaos.
By many measures, Afghanistan has made great gains over the last 13 years. There are more schools, more healthy women and children, more roads, more banks, more businesses, more media outlets, more soldiers and police — more everything. The one thing still missing, however, is a functioning democracy. The massive fraud that marred the presidential elections in 2009 and parliamentary elections in 2010 remains fresh in many minds.
With eight presidential candidates and about 2,700 provincial council contenders on the April 5 ballot, it’s fairly easy to predict that the vote will be more than a little messy. If previous experience is any guide, it is reasonable to expect that prolonged disputes over the results will arise and that a runoff between the leading presidential candidates will be necessary. The only real question is how much more chicanery Washington is willing to put up with this time.
Patience is running thin. Facing stiff resistance from President Hamid Karzai on the completion of the pending security pact and few signs of improved governance, the White House has worked hard to lower expectations for the Afghan political transition. Forget free and fair elections. “Transparent and inclusive” is the refrain of the day. Expect fraud. Anticipate violence. Assume prolonged uncertainty. Ten thousand troops? Zero-option? Let’s just wait and see. This today is what passes for American foreign policy.
The Obama administration may not know what it wants, but the Taliban has remained on message, vowing once again to disrupt the polls. Their backers among the Pakistani military and political elite have shown few signs of interest in brokering a peace deal anytime soon. The tragic, fatal assaults at the Serena Hotel and an office of the Independent Election Commission in Kabul earlier this month provide ample evidence that Pakistan remains committed to its longstanding policy of interference in internal Afghan political affairs. Since Washington has done little to challenge Pakistan’s destabilizing hold on the regional status quo, the Taliban has no reason to hold back when the endgame is so near.
Still, the real dark horse in the race is the potential for internecine violence between rival Afghan warlords and ethnic groups as they jockey for power in a post-Karzai government. The United Nations recorded more than 4,600 security incidents in the three-month period leading up to the official start of campaign season in February, marking a 24 percent increase in violence compared with the same period last year. At least five campaign workers have been killed during the election season, according to the Free and Fair Election Forum of Afghanistan. Leading presidential candidates Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister who placed second in the disputed election of 2009, and Ashraf Ghani, a former World Bank official, have also weathered a number of serious attacks and several of their campaign supporters have been killed.
Notably, however, former foreign minister Zalmay Rassoul’s presidential campaign has so far remained unscathed. Many fear that the Karzai family’s recent decision to back Rassoul’s bid means a vote for him will result in more of the same inept governance and corruption that has been a trademark of the Karzai era. Or, worse yet, some worry that massive electoral fraud may result in a political deadlock that will exacerbate the ongoing conflict. Afghanistan is in desperate need of new leadership, but it does not appear that the Karzai clan is fully convinced.
Yet much is at stake. The future of billions of dollars in aid to Afghanistan and, indeed, the stability of the country and the region, rests heavily on a credible electoral outcome and clean transfer of power. Another fraudulent election will only embitter Afghans and convince the American people that it’s not worth staying the long haul.
It’s time for the United States to acknowledge that victory is not within its grasp. Its support of an Afghan government widely viewed as corrupt and heavily reliant on political thuggery has done little to endear it to ordinary Afghan citizens. Washington needs to move beyond offering military solutions to political problems. At the same time, the government in Kabul must show that it can provide satisfactory answers to questions about its legitimacy.
There is no point in the United States staying the course in Afghanistan if the course leads nowhere.
Candace Rondeaux is a non-resident research fellow at the Center on National Security at Fordham University Law School. She lived in Kabul from 2008 to 2013, working first as the South Asia bureau chief for the Washington Post and, most recently, as the senior analyst in Afghanistan for the International Crisis Group.