- The Washington Times - Friday, August 28, 2009


Reactions to Afghanistan’s presidential election have ranged from insurgent assertions of failure to claims of “success” by some international officials. The election was not a failure since millions turned out to defy insurgent threats and exercise their constitutional right. Nor was it a “success,” since not all were able to vote and significant fraud was reported.

Taking into account the difficult circumstances and challenging conditions within which the election was held, one can conclude that despite significant flaws it was generally adequate. However, use of the word “success” in Afghanistan must be avoided since it creates high expectations that when not realized leads to further cynicism and disillusionment, and erodes the credibility of the government and international mission.

There will be many lessons from the current election as more information about the actual process is disclosed. Failure to learn, absorb and apply them to the 2010 parliamentary elections, or a potential second-round presidential election could lead to further deterioration of the status quo.

The internationally administered Afghan presidential election of 2004 recorded 70 percent voter participation. The 2005 parliamentary election drew far less enthusiasm with a 50 percent turnout. Participation in the current election is estimated at between 40 percent and 50 percent.

When compared to the 2004 election, the numbers drop significantly but when matched against the 2005 vote, the reduction is not particularly considerable. Unlike 2004, the current election is an Afghan-administered process with international supervision, albeit within an extensively deteriorated security environment.

A second-round vote would be a huge blow for President Hamid Karzai. Though he is likely to win a final vote, it would further weaken him politically. Any second-round vote would force Mr. Karzai to cut more deals and concede more political capital, particularly with elements of questionable repute. Owing too many favors to many factions is likely to further undermine his credibility and increase the potential for more corruption, increased inefficiency and indecision, and greater political polarization and gridlock.

Voter participation was lowest in Afghanistan’s war-torn south and east where intimidation and threats prevailed. These majority-Pashto regions heavily impact Mr. Karzai, an ethnic Pashtun whose origins and political base lie in the critical southern region of Kandahar, which is also the traditional heartland of the Taliban.

A victory by the former foreign minister, Abdullah Abdullah, could lead to greater political division and fragmentation. Although an ethnically mixed Tajik- Pashtun, he is widely considered by most as Tajik. The Pashtun majority would find it difficult to accept, further strengthening the hand of the insurgents to the detriment of the central government and broader international mission.

From a broader long-term perspective, the question often arises whether one should be more optimistic or pessimistic. It is important to be realistic, that is, there is no short-term solution to the situation in Afghanistan. This can be difficult to grasp for Western media and audiences accustomed to quick-fix solutions to problem-solving.

Afghanistan presents a far greater and more complex challenge than originally anticipated. As time passes, it has grown more so. To a significant extent, this is because since 2001 Afghanistan has been a mission pursued on the cheap. The required resources, both human and material, that should have been committed were not. And much of what was committed was done so inefficiently, particularly on the aid front.

Furthermore, the appropriate number of troops was not sent. In addition, the number of military trainers required to build up Afghan security forces was not assigned. Therefore, the mission is well behind the curve. That’s not to say that the situation is lost, as many at the highest levels have concluded. Despite these shortcomings, extraordinary work is being done on the ground by military and civilian personnel. However, much of it remains a patchwork that must be streamlined and structured into a more coherent framework.

The trendy talk in U.S. foreign policy circles has become whether Afghanistan is a war of choice or necessity. Unfortunately, the Iraq-centric terms of debate continue to overshadow Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, the choice was imposed upon the United States and the decision was made to pursue the mission with the agreement of allies. What’s at stake goes beyond basic necessity and rhetorical battles fought on the op-ed pages. It goes to the core of American national interest and international security and stability.

For ordinary Afghans there is still hope. The question is whether the international community has the appetite or will to sustain the effort long-term. Ultimately, this remains one of the single greatest challenges to the international mission in Afghanistan.

Marco Vicenzino is director of the Global Strategy Project.

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