The situation in Afghanistan is deteriorating fast and, in Western countries, popular support is fading away just as quickly—particularly in the United States.
In addition to the war on al Qaeda and the Taliban, the dispute over election results has been a setback for the Obama administration, shifting focus away from the battlefields.
The political crisis stems from serious doubts over the transparency of the Afghan presidential election. Indeed, very low voter turnout and serious allegations of fraud have already tarnished its credibility. The country is at a political impasse, and the faith of Afghanistan is in the hands of its Electoral Complaints Commission.
The ECC, which is staffed both by Afghans and internationals, will make the ultimate decision about the outcome of the election. Either it will declare President Hamid Karzai winner in the first round, or deduct enough votes to force a runoff. (Karzai received 54.6 percent of the vote, but if an audit brings the tally below 50 percent, it will trigger a second round.)
The public has lost faith in the Afghan government and the coalition forces. They no longer believe that either is able to protect them from the Taliban.
However, the ECC’s decision will not be based on its investigations. The commission will have neither adequate time nor the technical means to investigate the more than 2,000 allegations of fraud under the present security circumstances. Because the dispute over the election results is a political one, the ECC’s decision will inevitably be political as well.
• Bruce Riedel: Why Pakistanis See America as the Main Threat • Vanda Felbab-Brown: All or Nothing in Afghanistan There are two scenarios for the election’s outcome.
The first is that Karzai wins the first round and forms a coalition government, not only with partners who backed him in his reelection, but, under pressure from the international community, with his opponent Abdullah Abdullah’s camp.
The second scenario is that no candidate wins the race in the first round. But as the harsh Afghanistan winter descends and security issues pose logistical nightmares, the likelihood of holding the second round before next spring or summer is small.
Both scenarios are disastrous for Afghanistan.
The former would weaken Afghanistan significantly, as it would lead to a coalition government composed of antagonist forces—powerful warlords, who helped reelect Karzai, and the opposition, who accused the president of vote rigging. This is a recipe for failure. The latter option would create a power vacuum. Karzai’s legitimacy would be undermined if his mandate were extended for another few months because the opposition would refuse to recognize his authority.
The ultimate goal of the U.S. administration in Afghanistan is to defeat al Qaeda and the Taliban, not only in Afghanistan but also in neighboring Pakistan. To succeed, the U.S. needs a legitimate and functional government in Kabul that provides justice, security, and basic services to a population that, at present, feels disenfranchised from the political process. The public has lost faith in the Afghan government and the coalition forces. They no longer believe that either is able to protect them from the Taliban.
According to the American counterinsurgency doctrine, the war in Afghanistan is not about killing all the bad guys, but rather about winning the hearts and minds of local people. Only a legitimate and accountable government can be a reliable partner in implementing this new strategy in Afghanistan. But contrary to the White House’s initial expectations for the elections, the next Afghan government will be weak, dysfunctional, and lack legitimacy in the eyes of a majority of Afghans. And corruption, narcotics, and nepotism will remain unchallenged.
The Afghan people and the international community cannot afford to wait another five years before any substantive and positive change takes place.
To manage Afghanistan out of this current crisis, one solution is to opt for another caretaker government—a “Bonn 2.0.” Months after the American invasion in 2001, prominent Afghans and international powers met in Bonn, Germany, and chose a leader for the transition government. Karzai was appointed, but maybe it’s time to reconvene and start a new government.
Such a government would have greater credibility and legitimacy in the eyes of Afghans than any formed as a result of the contested presidential election. In fact, the decision to hold another international conference has already been suggested by Germany and Britain for early next year, but we need to advance its date by a couple of months and broaden its participants to include influential Afghans, as was the case in the Bonn conference. However, this time the international community should extend an olive branch to the Taliban and Hezb-e-Islami of Hekmatyar by inviting them to take part in this new international conference on Afghanistan.
By this means, it would be possible to turn the current political crisis into an opportunity. It would allow for new leadership with a capable team that would be accountable not only to the Afghan people but also to the international community. Such an interim government would need to improve the situation, and by so doing, regain the trust of the Afghan people. It would, of course, need to ensure that fair and transparent presidential elections take place within two years.
Haroun Mir is the director of Afghanistan’s Center for Research and Policy Studies.