December 25, 2009

One Delay Leads to Another

Good thing most Afghans aren’t Christians because this story would make a terrible Christmas gift. A handful of anonymous Western diplomats and more than a few concerned Afghan lawmakers revealed that America and Britain are having doubts on parliamentary elections, scheduled for May.

Melanie Scarlett, a press officer at the British Embassy in Kabul, certainly contributed to this impression by saying, “Before committing further funding and putting our troops and those of our international partners at risk, we need to be sure that the lessons learned have been implemented and that the elections will make a contribution to improving Afghan governance.”

But she’s only a mask. The AP reports, “While the international community has not publicly threatened to hold back funds, some Western diplomats are quietly hoping Afghan officials decide to delay the election, according to two international officials who spoke on condition of anonymity.”

The White House believed since day one that it could lead Karzai with promises and punishments of  troops and cash, with underwhelming results. Apparently the West still believes he can still be led through a maze despite all evidence to the contrary, but this latest wish is unlikely to come true.

"We are ready to carry out our duties,” Noor Mohammad Noor, a spokesman for Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission. “The only problem for us is money. That is up to the donor countries who are providing us the funds. We are waiting for a response from them next month."

A few lawmakers thought postponing the election until security improves would be a good idea. Indeed, delaying has its advantages, though this tactic assumes that security will be reestablished, a dangerous risk to begin with. But security would bring out the vote, a potentially enormous payoff.

President Hamid Karzai could fall through Afghanistan's ethnic fault lines, but the goal is not what he or America wants. A robust turnout and fair vote would outline the truest representation of Afghanistan to date. Whoever Afghans want for their country will be thrust into power, whatever they want will be set in motion.

Again assuming that local leaders make national leaders, not the other way around, this raw expression would generate local political will to combine with a US-led full spectrum counterinsurgency. And America won't be to blame if the politicians Afghans actually voted into power end up failing to improve the country.

Sounds wonderful, because missing the payoff will be unforgiving. At the heart of President Obama’s strategy, old and new, lie fatal contradictions.

Local politics, perceived as critical to US military success, are often elevated above the national level, perhaps explaining why parliamentary elections are causing so much concern. But Obama's target audience already lost confidence after the presidential election and postponing an election is not the way to win back local Afghans. Local players will jostle for positioning, and if many educated Afghans tuned out in August, what about a postponement? To them Afghan democracy is a joke.

Here’s another little inconvenience  - the Afghan constitution. Mohammad Aqbal Safi, a parliamentarian from Kapisa province in eastern Afghanistan, warned, “If there is no election, or it is delayed, the current parliament will be criticized as illegal.”

US officials succumbed to the constitution during the runoff only to install Karzai by claiming a withdrawn challenger is constitutionally eliminated. Now it's a burden again. The constitution calls for elections in May, thus it would be unconstitutional to postpone unless the law was amended. America would be held solely responsible.

This isn’t a rational political strategy; India for one appears to believe so. J.P. Singh, a spokesman for the Indian Embassy in Kabul, told reporters in response to the story "There is no question of India's views on this. The constitution should be respected and the aspirations of Afghan people should be guarded.”

Considering that rumors are already circulating Kabul, America’s perception as a meddler shows no signs of improving. Postponing one election after overseeing a fraudulent one, protecting Karzai on both occasions, solidifies the impression that they pick and choose power like aristocrats and kings.

Shakeba Hashimi, a parliamentarian from Kandahar province in southern Afghanistan who campaigned for Dr. Abdullah, “They don't want election, they want selection. Karzai's brother thinks he is the king of Kandahar and can do whatever he wants."

Low and behold, Ahmed Wali proclaimed soon after his brother’s re-election, “I am powerful because I am the President’s brother. This is a country ruled by kings. The king’s brothers, cousins, sons, are all powerful. This is Afghanistan. It will change, but it will not change overnight.”

To be fair Obama did drop the whole democracy act, but the Taliban will have a field day. At the minimum Obama will cede even more short-term momentum when he's trying to reverse it, and open-ended commitment plays into Mullah Omar's hands.

Peter Galbraith, the former UN official foretold, "This will undermine the fading confidence of Afghans in democracy and will further diminish the already low credibility of Karzai's government. Unless the problems that led to massive fraud in 2009 are fixed, the only sure winner of next year's parliamentary elections will be the Taliban.”

America needs everything to go exactly right to pull off such a stunt - and nothing goes as planned in Afghanistan. Security could worsen, fraud could reoccur, national leaders and warlords could disrupt parliamentary voting results. And Karzai only turned a few leaves as the NYT vividly demonstrates through its dwindling hope.

Obama might have six months to postpone the election, but he better make the right long-term decision because he has no margin for error. A year would force Obama to rescind his 18 month phrase entirely, regardless of its meaning. No US troops would leave by July 2011.

But will they stay 50 or 60 years like Secretary of State Hillary Clinton implied to the Senate Armed Forces Committee on December 2nd? Sooner or later Obama will have to decide whether to forget a quick exit and plan for the long haul, or admit he misjudged Afghanistan and plan a true withdrawal.

Expect him to postpone that decision as long as possible.

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