Clearing the Path for Karzai

Abdullah Abdullah has dropped his bid for the Afghan presidency. By conceding, he makes himself a martyr—and damages the nation’s democracy. Michael O’Hanlon on what happens next.

10.31.09 7:57 PM ET

If, as reported, Abdullah Abdullah, who polled second behind President Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan’s August 20 presidential election and as such was slated to run against him in a two-man runoff November 7, pulls out of the race, it will be a major mistake. Karzai’s reelection will then be generally considered legitimate despite Abdullah’s protestations—even though the legitimacy he gains in the process will be somewhat tainted by Abdullah’s decision. But the latter amounts more to a concession than a principled stand. While Karzai has many other things to do to gain legitimacy, mostly in the area of governance, he will have done enough to be seen as the rightfully reelected president of the country.

Assuming Karzai is now awarded a second term, he will have to re-earn that trust and legitimacy from his fellow citizens—or the insurgency will continue to metastasize and the war will be lost.

Abdullah’s complaint is that some members of one of Afghanistan’s independent election boards are too friendly with Karzai, and thus not trustworthy as arbiters of the election outcome. On the merits of the argument, he may have at least a partial point. But the other election board is by all accounts reputable—and the two of them together, aided by the international community, ultimately returned some rigor and reason to the first round of the presidential race. They found evidence of fraud and stuffing of ballot boxes—and threw out lots of votes as a result. It was this good and honorable work that led to the situation where the November 7 runoff was needed, since President Karzai’s initial tally of votes of around 55 to 60 percent ultimately was reduced to 48 percent. Since the latter figure was less than half of all voters, a two-man showdown was required by the Afghan constitution, and preparations for the November 7 vote have been under way since Senator John Kerry, Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, and others helped convince Karzai to accept the verdict of the independent boards.

To be sure, none of this should have happened. Karzai tolerated too many shenanigans both before the elections (when state-run media covered him and his campaign far more than it covered other candidates) and on election day, when many ballot boxes were stuffed. The excuses—that Karzai did not know what was happening, or that such cheating was semi-justified because it compensated for low turnout by Pashtun voters (mostly friendly to Karzai) in areas of the country where the insurgency is strongest—do not wash. Karzai was finally persuaded to accept that reality, due to a great deal of work by his fellow Afghans, key Americans, and others.

On balance, the Afghan election process—while ugly and far from perfect—has been a glass 52 percent full. Yet Abdullah, sensing inevitable defeat perhaps, has refused to see it that way. Most expect that Karzai would win around 60 percent of the vote in the runoff; Abdullah, knowing he has almost no chance, has instead apparently decided to make himself a political martyr. But that decision hurts Afghan’s young democracy more than is warranted by the circumstances.

President Karzai is hardly out of the woods. The crisis of legitimacy he faces among his fellow Afghans remains, due to poor governance more than electoral fraud. Assuming he is now awarded a second term, he will have to re-earn that trust and legitimacy from his fellow citizens—or the insurgency will continue to metastasize and the war will be lost. He needs to indulge in less favoritism toward his friends, family, and fellow Durrani tribesman; he needs to reduce graft and corruption, fire a few of the worst apples from his national and regional governments, and spread the benefits of the country’s wealth (or, more accurately, the international aid effort) more evenly to include more of the Ghilzai tribe (the core of the Taliban) as well as others. This is the enormous post-election agenda before us. Abdullah’s decision is a distraction from that agenda, but should not be allowed to capture our attention for long.

Michael O'Hanlon specializes in national security policy at the Brookings Institution. He is senior author of the Iraq Index. As a defense budget analyst, he advised members of Congress on military spending.