October 16, 2009

The Monkey's Sledgehammer

Perceptions are slowly merging with reality. What the world has known since August 20th, but vehemently downplayed by many US officials, is about to come true - Afghanistan’s election needs a runoff. After the first round threw a wrench in President Obama’s strategy, the monkey will be swinging a sledgehammer in the second round

Begin with an undeniable truth: Afghanistan needs a runoff. The country as a whole won’t accept Hamid Karzai without one, America will look even more foolish for propping him up, and the Taliban are sure to capitalize. Nor can Afghanistan afford to look like Iran and project a double standard. Regardless of what any particular party wants, the constitution demands a runoff if no candidate receives over 50% of the vote.

Final results of the recount are expected Saturday, but word leaked that Karzai has fallen below 47%. “Chances are there will be a second round,” Said Tayeb Jawad, ambassador to America, told reporters, “although it was not so sure up to a couple of days ago, but now it looks like there will be a second round.”

Vindication is near for Peter W. Galbraith. The former deputy of the UN’s Afghan mission similarly told reporters, "I think everybody has figured out what's going to happen. My guess is that from everything that has happened, it's probably a sign that there is going to be a runoff."

The questions are: has Obama figured out what’s going to happen, and what’s he planning to do?

Opposing a runoff would be suicidal, so cross out that option. Reconciliation is also unlikely. Jawad said of the possibility, “That’s peaceable, that’s doable, that’s probably a good way to go politically, but whether it would make a huge difference as far as the reality on the ground, and as far as bringing more capable, skillful Afghans to the government, I doubt it.”

Dr. Abdullah, Karzai’s challenger, isn’t optimistic either. Though he recently admitted, “It will be a different environment, no doubt, once the announcement is made,” he’s also rejected a power-sharing deal on numerous occasions. He’s waiting to see just how much Karzai’s lead gets cut down. If it comes near his own level then he’s going full bore on a runoff.

Abdullah isn’t stupid though, he could join Karzai if his lead is insurmountable. But Karzai isn't stupid either. He already thinks he won and knows he has the majority to win a runoff. If by chance he did give Dr. Abdullah a position of power, will he be an equal partner and can they get along for five years? How will Afghanistan’s ethnic fault lines react? Will the same divides split the government itself?

Octopus Mountain isn’t optimistic of power-sharing.

Yet a runoff could smash what’s left of Obama's original “Afpak” strategy. Afghan officials are pointing to an early November date, otherwise the runoff will be delayed until spring. Obama simply cannot wait that long to deploy more troops. Three weeks isn’t close to enough time either, but Obama needs to figure it out. By any means.

"How can the second round be desirable for Afghanistan?” Afghan Foreign Minister Rangin Dadfar Spanta reacted to runoff speculation. “The international community loses security forces, we lose our security forces, we have to spend a significant volume of money. The security situation will be worse, and this is not desirable."

Yesterday General Jonathan Vance, chief Canadian commander in Afghanistan, called the military situation “serious, “desperate,” and “a major emergency.” Then today, Major General Mart de Kruif, NATO’s commander in southern Afghanistan, warned, “we absolutely need additional forces.”

“In RC (regional command) south, to really complete the 'shape, clear, hold, build,' we need at least two additional brigades of coalition forces, somewhere between 10,000 or 15,000 troops,” he said.

Afghanistan’s Electoral Complaints Commission will announce a runoff on Saturday, barring a miracle or foul play that declares Karzai the winner. Obama should use the opportunity and justification to go public on a troop deployment. The reasons are twofold.

First, purely from a perception standpoint, holding a runoff without additional US forces screams, “We’re not going to support you.” US officials preach a long-term commitment, but delaying troops until after a runoff is about American interests, not Afghanistan’s. While stumping for Karzai yet again, State Secretary Hillary Clinton claimed that Obama will only make a decision when he's, "absolutely comfortable with what he believes is in the best interest of the United States."

Conversely, nothing would prove America stands by Afghans more than troops to guard the runoff. This option isn’t practical though; Obama could announce them tomorrow and they still won't reach Afghanistan in three weeks. He needs to find a way though because he’s locked in a catch 22. An unprotected runoff will unleash more havoc, while deploying troops without a stable government is tactically and strategically dangerous.

War is chaos incarnate and cannot be expected to follow logic. Paradoxes are inevitable. The White House doesn't want to admit that Afghanistan needs more troops regardless of who’s in power.

Arguing that President Obama should wait until after the runoff before making a decision doesn't work when he's already rejected withdrawal. Freezing troop levels, especially with a runoff looming, is absurd. Thus his only debate is over numbers, whether 10,000, 20,000, or 45,000. Assuming he’s already committed more troops on paper, he should launch an emergency deployment of those decided.

Send 10,000 or 20,000 immediately and mull the rest during the runoff and winter. America maintains Rapid Deployment Forces for military contingencies. Launch them. A contingency is defined as, "a future event that is possible but cannot be predicted with certainty," and a fraudulent election fits the requirement. Also hold an emergency meeting with NATO and try to cull another 5,000 to be deployed immediately. This is war, not academics. Make it work.

Jawad said of a runoff, "Four weeks will push it into early November and that's the latest that it will happen because after that it will be extremely cold, especially in northern Afghanistan. But if it's delayed to spring, this is clearly a recipe for disaster - this creates a lot of confusion, a lot of indecisiveness and also further complicated relations."

Five or sixth months is too long for Obama to make a decision. He doesn’t like his options, but no words will change reality. He was unprepared for a runoff, America was to be fair. If Obama isn't ready to commit now then he’s not ready for Afghanistan.

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