The early returns from Afghanistan’s presidential election had the smell of a decorous massage job. With 10% of districts reporting, the incumbent, Hamid Karzai, and his main challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, the former Foreign Minister, were tied, with about 40% each.
But few of those votes came from Karzai’s Pashtun strongholds in the south, where turnout was light — owing to Taliban threats — but heavily managed. “It’s not exactly one man, one vote out in the rural areas,” a Western diplomat told me.
“The tribal leader gathers everyone together and says, ‘We’re voting for Candidate X.’” In some cases, apparently, tribal leaders have simply stamped all the ballots themselves; with literacy rates running at less than 10% in many rural areas, that’s not considered fraud but business as usual.
And so it seems likely that Karzai will “win” re-election. Whether he has won anything worth winning remains to be seen.
The absurdity of holding an election in an impoverished country with a central government that barely governs and a guerrilla insurgency that has threatened to kill anyone caught voting is illustrative of our current Afghan dilemma.
We have been prodding the Afghans to run, from Kabul, a country that has always been governed from the bottom up, valley by valley, tribe by tribe. Karzai has many attributes, but a desire to provide effective governance is off his radar screen.
He is good at the traditional form of Afghan politics, creating alliances among tribal and ethnic factions. The money distributed by the central government — inevitably, money contributed by the international community — is routinely received as tribute by Karzai’s local allies, to be disbursed, or not, as they wish; a government job is assumed by many, especially the police, to be a license to collect money for themselves. (An exception appears to be in the effective, if fledgling, Afghan army.)
“I have yet to meet an Afghan civilian who has anything positive to say about the central government,” a senior U.S. official told me.
“They don’t like the Taliban very much, but the Taliban at least provide a system of justice, plus some goods and services, and they’ll go with that.”
That is why Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, says the military situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated. “Last week I spoke to a couple of Army Rangers who had just engaged the enemy,” Mullen told me.
“They said it was like fighting the Marines. The Taliban were well trained, better organized, much tougher fighters than they’d been in the past.” And that is why it is widely expected that General Stanley McChrystal will be requesting more troops when his review of the situation on the ground is completed in a few weeks.
I’m told that President Obama will make a decision about whether to accede to McChrystal’s request, in whole or in part, by November.
That will probably be about the same time as the health-care-reform debate comes to a head. By the end of November, we should have a much clearer sense of the trajectory of the Obama presidency.
So what should Obama do about Afghanistan? His dilemma isn’t as stark as has been posed in recent press accounts, with screamers on the right demanding slavish devotion to the military’s wish list and screamers on the left demanding a withdrawal.
The U.S. military has become far more ... nuanced when it comes to making requests of Presidents. The negotiations about what McChrystal can officially request will not take place anywhere near the public eye.
It is very likely that more troops will be sent — to build and train the Afghan security forces, it will be said. Obama’s problems on the left will be mitigated by the fact that most Democrats have also supported this war — as opposed to Iraq’s — and have little desire to reverse themselves.
They don’t want to hurt the President, and they don’t want to be perceived as weak on defense come election time.
Which still leaves the nagging question: What is the right thing to do in Afghanistan? It should be remembered that we invaded with cause: the Taliban government was providing safe havens for al-Qaeda, from which the Sept. 11 attacks were launched.
Having routed the existing Afghan government, we had a responsibility to restore order. We have bungled that responsibility for eight years, attempting a Western version of order: central governance, the appearance of democracy — but largely ignoring traditional Afghan ways of social organization.
The national-security challenge still exists, although its locus has shifted across the border to Pakistan.
Even if we help the Afghans establish a brilliant government in Kabul, that threat will remain — and it’s legitimate to ask whether pouring our resources into Afghan nation-building is the best way to confront al-Qaeda. Unless the new Karzai government quickly changes course, the only reasonable answer is no.
The question then becomes, What’s Plan B? And is anyone working on that?