They always get what they want in the end, just in time for London too. Now, is what the West wants good for Afghanistan?
Today, after months of back-room tug-of-war between Western and Afghan officials, Independent Election Commission member Zekriya Barakzai announced Afghanistan's parliamentary election would be postponed from May 22nd to September 19th.
The reason: "problems and constraints to get the proper budget, and also security concerns, logistical obstacles and also to improve the electoral procedures."
Translation: America, NATO, and the UN are withholding the funds until president Hamid Karzai obeys their orders to clean up corruption in his political circle.
On the surface President Obama’s plan to secure Afghanistan before the election appears to be the correct order of operations; another unsecured, fraudulent election would cripple his surge. Done properly, America could stabilize southern Afghanistan enough to hold an acceptable turnout, increasing the chances of long-term success.
But postponing the parliamentary election is a gamble, not what one diplomat, "a pragmatic and sensible decision which will allow time for reform of the key electoral institutions to enable cleaner parliamentary elections."
Obama is already out of time according to his own watch. He must pay to play - at some point he must publicly alter his strategy. Time is ticking on both his surge and how long before he postpones America’s exit from Afghanistan.
Getting a feel for Afghan public opinion is never easy. Outcry over a delay might be minimal when considering half of Afghans don’t believe Karzai is legitimate and don’t care either. Almost all Afghans believe corruption is a daily problem and should welcome measures to police it.
Afghans are the pragmatic ones here, and they might not care about a few months if it means their whole future. But delaying the election can ricochet back in a number of ways.
Western interference still resurfaces as a political and propaganda factor, potentially more than in the presidential election. America is using an election as a carrot, a risky maneuver. Postponing the election reveals a collapsed political system, exhausted and overloaded by excessive demands.
First Obama wanted to build democracy, then he didn’t, know he wants to again, but only enough for America to leave. Afghanistan needs a few months of R&R after all this surgery.
War is not so forgiving though and neither is reality. By postponing the election Obama is tacitly admitting to a flawed presidential election. If Karzai is the problem then America is the real problem for shielding him into power. Obama, then, needs time to correct his own mistakes. Two failed cabinet nominations later and it’s easy to understand a panicking White House.
It didn’t get the outcome it had hoped for.
Karzai could favor delaying the election as it gives him time to reorganize; in this way he’s borrowing Obama’s time. Yet postponing the election is unlikely to, as Reuters puts it, “remove a source of friction between President Hamid Karzai and his Western backers who wanted time for electoral reforms.”
Friction is only beginning. US officials will be riding Karzai for the next 10 months, and previous year hasn’t been encouraging. Feeling and chafing at the pressure, Karzai recently blamed the West for his “weak government.” Obama expects to put even more pressure on him without causing backlash.
With Obama’s political strategy off to a weak start it’s natural to assume this weakness will continue, but evidence is presented as well.
Delaying the election in favor of his surge once again assigns priority to the military dimension of counterinsurgency. Like pushing Karzai into power despite an illegitimacy Western officials now cite as one reason to delay the parliamentary election.
The AP reports, “Some nations also are concerned that having to guard polling stations in May would be a distraction for the 30,000 U.S. reinforcements and thousands of other foreign troops recently deployed with orders to stall the Taliban's momentum.”
This suggests, at some level, that America simply doesn’t want to worry about Afghanistan’s politics. It doesn’t want to think about August or November or May - fight now and figure everything else out later. But won't a fragile government sap the energy from Obama's surge?
He's already discovered that the ground fails to move even if the strategy looks good on a Washington table. September might not be enough time to install a capable central government that can carry out Afghan training, Taliban reconciliation, and local infrastructure projects.
Combined with a failure to secure southern Afghanistan and contain a Taliban offensive in the north, the possibility of a big pay off is remote.
Obama has a problem. With parliamentary elections on schedule in September, Karzai might not have a fully-functioning government in place until October or later, nine months away from July 2011 at the minimum. This gives Obama nine months with a real Afghan government to look like he’s "winning."
Considering the stalemate he fought in one year, “momentum” is likely two years away from permanently shifting in America’s favor, providing the plan goes perfectly or near-perfectly. We have yet to see anything close to perfection from Obama.
Elsewhere Gates and Mullen have been talking momentum since 2008 and here we are in 2010, talking momentum. 2012 will creep up fast and seems a more likely best case scenario than July 2011. Obama is leaving himself no room for error, betting on the perfect strategy when 18 months isn’t enough time for it to unfold.
Eventually he must ask for a postponement. It wouldn’t be the first time he misjudged.