November 2, 2009

No Change in Afghanistan

[Note: This analysis was written on November 1st, roughly 10 hours after Dr. Abdullah announced his boycott. It needed rapid revision 14 hours later when Karzai was declared president to the White House's twisted relief.]

Only in a democracy as backwards as Afghanistan’s can political chaos give birth to universal agreement. In the 12 hours since Dr. Abdullah’s decision to boycott an election runoff, all parties agreed that the gravest change yet won't lead to any change.

Perhaps this is the greatest sign that change needs to happen or else America could be finished in Afghanistan.

Unanimity between American officials suggests they were prepared for Abdullah’s decision. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attempted to minimize collateral, saying before his press conference began, “I don't think it has anything to do with the legitimacy of the election. It's a personal choice... We see that happen in our own country where, for whatever combination of reasons, one of the candidates decides not to go forward."

Because an American presidential candidate dropping out of the election due to fraud is so common. Acting as the first responder, White House advisers and support from both parties soon joined Clinton to bolster the American line. They did so, however, with stunning ignorance of public perception.

"We are going to deal with the government that is there," David Axelrod, White House senior adviser, told CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “And obviously there are issues we need to discuss, such as reducing the high level of corruption. These are issues we'll take up with President Karzai."

As in, Hamid Karzai is officially president. More than his opponents would be infuriated by this hollow victory - Karzai doesn’t want the election handed to him either.

Though Karzai remarked, “Dr Abdullah's decision has disappointed us,” his spokesman, Waheed Omar, told Al Jazeera, “His withdrawal should not alter the process. We believe that the elections have to go on, the process has to complete itself, the people of Afghanistan have to be given the right to vote. The process should go on and the people of Afghanistan should be given the chance to vote.”

Meanwhile Daoud Ali Najafi, chief of the Independent Election Commission (IEC), told Reuters that Afghanistan's constitution demanded a run-off despite Abdullah's decision. At least Karzai, realizing how dangerous a default presidency would be, is trying to create an image of legitimacy. Not so in America.

“The president wanted an election that proceeded in the constitutional way, a runoff was called, and Abdullah exercised his rights as a candidate,” Axelrod said. “He's made a political decision to withdraw from the contest. That doesn't markedly change the situation. Abdullah Abdullah has established himself as the leader of the opposition. Every poll that was taken there suggested he was likely to be defeated anyway.”

Afghanistan's democracy is demonstrating the full power of its warped influence. Backing up Axelrod were White House adviser Valerie Jarrett, Senator Joe Lieberman, and Republican Minority Leader John Boehner, who summarized the US position as, “I think everyone expected that President Karzai was going to be re-elected. So Dr. Abdullah's exit from this race, I think, really says more about the fact that he knew he wasn't going to win."

What happened to corruption, fraud, and political cronyism? What happened to hearts and minds in Afghanistan? Only polls matter now? Taliban spokesman Qari Mohammad Yousuf told Reuters, "There will be no change of policy as far as we are concerned.”

Certain proof that America needs to alter its policy.

The typeset tone from Washington suggests it was actually unprepared for this latest cataract, otherwise its reaction would differ from monotony and hastiness. Why rush to discard Abdullah if his defeat is inevitable? Why not take his charges seriously, instead attacking him personally, and promote a sense of credibility before he bows out? Why disenfranchise his supporters without a second thought? Because the White House is scared of alienating Karzai.

But President Obama must think long-term. He and his officials are obsessed with ending the election cycle in the quickest and easier manner. Initiating a troop deployment appears simpler with Abdullah’s withdrawal, yet the opposite is more likely. Forfeiting the presidency to Karzai or supporting a single-candidate election will complicate the ground militarily, politically, and culturally.

A forked road, Karzai harbors short and long-term risks. America is unlikely to succeed in running counterinsurgency, where political legitimacy is key, through a de-facto president with less than half the country’s support. The White House, believing the proverbial good girl can change a bad guy, is unlikely to alter Karzai's behavior and the war will deteriorate as a result.

Furthermore, an illegitimate election will undermine Karzai’s political survival. Neither his internal opponents nor those American allies who doubt him will forgive or forget what is transpiring. With the Taliban adding a final element of opposition, dissent against Karzai could build to the point of bringing him down. Then America would be left with no one to execute a counterinsurgency.

Though Karzai will likely fall into power, as US officials claim, this potential inevitability becomes the reason why perception is so critical. America must take a giant step back from Karzai - and stick that “he wouldn’t have won anyway” line about Abdullah back in the closet. Unequivocal support for Karzai is feeding the perception that he’s an American puppet, not the representative of Afghanistan.

"It's a fiasco," said Peter Galbraith, the former UN official. "There is no way that Karzai can escape the taint of fraud. He is going to be seen as illegitimate by most of the Afghan people."

As White House officials frequently point out, no strategy can succeed without a legitimate government. A change in that belief leads to no change in Afghanistan.

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