October 22, 2009

Downward Spiral

Afghanistan’s election is finally set for an inevitable runoff; no alternative fit the voting statistics and constitutional requirements. Octopus Mountain would have derided any attempt to suppress a runoff and applauds President Obama’s acceptance of reality.

A runoff is a disaster in the making. The outcome could be the same as the election, wasting precious resources and time; it could also further split the country. November 7th threatens to end Afghanistan’s election turbulence and initiate a death spiral.

It’s hard to find a bright spot because the reason for a runoff - legitimacy - has been compromised. Assume for theoretical purposes that Hamid Karzai will emerge victorious. What legitimacy can he gain after stealing a million votes in the election, resisting a runoff, then essentially having to be baby-sat during the next round? It’s doubtful that he’ll attract anyone outside his political base, leaving the country deeply divided and unstable.

An Abdullah victory similarly contains no legitimacy to his opponents, chiefly Karzai. Suffice to say, Karzai won't accept defeat because he believes he already won. Meanwhile Pashtuns would helplessly watch the West remove their leader and install a Tajik, not exactly a confidence builder.

Thus either outcome still poses enormous political challenges for both Afghans and America. Easy doesn't exist in Afghanistan and Obama will fail if he attempts to skirt these challenges. Neither Karzai nor Abdullah will accept a power-sharing agreement. The two men don't like each other and wouldn’t make a good team; they reportedly spoke today for the first time since August. No one should force them together because they'll fall apart.

“I think a coalition government is not a solution for Afghanistan's problems,” said Abdullah afterward. “We are completely ready for the second round."

But a runoff is only an answer to a particular problem - the election - and for the winning side; it offers few solutions for America or ordinary Afghans. A legitimate vote could right the plane, but it’s still flying into a storm.

Security is what it is. The end of President Obama’s 17,000 troops will finally be in place, but the Taliban’s growing ranks and territory could negate this small advantage. No time will be spent arguing for more US troops when they are so clearly needed from a security perspective - a breakdown will hobble the runoff right out of the box.

In an effort to minimize security concerns, the UN will close the most obscure polling stations along with those that saw minimal turnout and high fraud, an estimated 7,000 out of 24,000. This prudent move unfortunately carries risk. Southern Afghanistan is likely to become disenfranchised even more; its inhabitants had nowhere safe to vote and now they may have nowhere to vote. Karzai won’t be happy to lose his ghost stations either.

Building on that theme, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told the BBC that he wants to replace 200 poll officials who were complicit in fraud. Karzai will interpret such a move with disgust. Moreover, Al Jazeera reporter James Bay claims Dr. Abdullah is drumming up pressure to reform the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) before the runoff.

“He's been very strong in the past saying that the chairman of that commission is a Karzai man and that he cannot be trusted,” Bay reported. “One of Abdullah's aides told me that he is trying to get other figures in the international community - possibly the US, possibly the UN - to put pressure on the IEC to change things. If Abdullah comes out and says the chairman must resign, Karzai will probably stand up to that and say 'no, I back the chairman'. But if the UN or the international community says that they want to see changes, then there might be changes."

These changes, while positive for Afghanistan, would be perceived by Karzai as an international lynching. He won the election in his mind and the West is trying to take it away. Still slighted by James Carville’s assistance to Ashraf Ghani, Karzai won’t forget this pile of injustices if he wins. He should appreciate that the West saved him from a fatal mistake, but he might hold a grudge instead.

Alienating Karzai is the possible price of a runoff.

So where does this leave President Obama? Surprisingly in the driver's seat, should he prepare accordingly. Senator John Kerry, determined to leave his mark on Afghanistan and Pakistan, blandly stated, "I think it's critical to have a runoff. It's a two-week period.” He also brushed against the truth, saying, “you want to know what kind of government has come out of it. I would absolutely counsel the president to wait till the end of the runoff.”

Obama doesn’t want to know, he does know. The options aren’t hidden, either Karzai or Abdullah, most likely Karzai, will emerge victorious. Obama shouldn't make his decision at the end of the runoff; rather, he should already be decided and know exactly what he'll do for either outcome. He can and should be ready as soon as a winner is announced, though he may have no answer to a stalemate and would be particularly doomed in such an event.

If so then expect another delay from Obama.

Otherwise the runway is clear to launch his strategy - to rush the cabin and pull the plane out of its spiral, or to strap on a parachute and escape the crash. Delay again and hit the ground.

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