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Afghanistan: Now what?

After the election mess, Obama has little choice but to work with President Hamid Karzai's weakened government.

November 03, 2009

In the first round of balloting, Afghan President Hamid Karzai received 1 million "ghost votes" from people who simply didn't exist. When those were eliminated, he lacked the requisite plurality and was pressed by his Western backers into agreeing to a runoff -- only to see his challenger drop out in anticipation of further fraud. Faced with a one-man race, the Independent Election Commission on Monday canceled the second round and returned Karzai to power for a second five-year term.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has tried to put a positive spin on all this, saying that candidates pull out of elections even in the United States and that the withdrawal of former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah does not affect the legitimacy of the process. But the Obama administration looks silly pretending this is anything but a mess. Although we had our doubts about the Afghan government's ability to pull off a safe and clean runoff, we had hoped there would be one. Now, although he received more votes than anyone else the first time and likely would have won a second vote, Karzai looks like a president by default, and his government looks increasingly illegitimate.

President Obama telephoned Karzai to congratulate him on his second term and to try to move forward, urging formation of a Cabinet that is representative of the country's ethnic and political groups, and reforms to address the corruption and incompetence that has eroded Afghan confidence in Karzai. This is at the root of the problem not only with the presidential election but with the whole U.S. enterprise in Afghanistan. After eight years, nearly $225 billion spent and 68,000 troops currently deployed, it is difficult to see progress in nation-building, and the Taliban is resurgent.

The status quo cannot continue. Obama has yet to decide whether he will heed the call of the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, for up to 40,000 more troops, but he has said he will not walk away from the country altogether. If that's the case, it seems Obama has no choice but to hold his nose and press on with a weakened ally. Given that, he must push for a national unity government in Kabul to broaden its base of support and, at the same time, help develop a more decentralized administration of a land that has always been a loose collection of tribes and districts. Decentralization would allow the West to spread its resources to regional leaders rather than concentrating them in the hands of Karzai and his clique. Any U.S. strategy for stabilizing Afghanistan and drawing support away from the Taliban depends on a political leadership perceived as legitimate and a government that serves its people.

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