The South Asia Channel

The imperfect election was the easy part ...

By Brian Katulis and Hardin Lang

As members of an international election observation delegation to last month's presidential election and provincial elections, we were impressed that the courage of millions Afghan voters who showed up at the polls despite widespread violence and intimidation. Holding an election in a time of war is never an easy thing, and many Afghans faced the tough choice of going to cast their ballots in a combat zone.

Although the Independent Election Commission (IEC) announced this week that President Hamid Karzai passed the 50 percent threshold to avoid a runoff with more than 90 percent of the vote counted, the electoral process is far from complete. The country's IEC needs to finish tabulating the results, and the Electoral Complaints Commission, a separate body consisting of both Afghan and international commissioners, will need to credibly adjudicate mounting charges of electoral fraud, which now number in the thousands. For the next Afghan president to gain the legitimacy to govern, these bodies must complete their tasks transparently and efficiently. 

Holding an imperfect election was the easy part. Yet, no matter who emerges as the ballot's victor, the vote did not magically transform the country. Like Iraq's 2005 elections, the voting process in Afghanistan merely provided some indication of the internal balance of power between those who chose to participate, as well as those who did not, including affiliates of the Taliban. Unfortunately, that balance appears to increasingly favor the latter.

Perhaps more crucial to Afghanistan's immediate future, the next president will have to come to grips with the insurgency and the forces that drive it. America and its allies can help, but simply sending more troops will not win the day. Afghanistan's next leader must take two key steps to build a more stable foundation for any increased U.S. support to be effective.

First, Afghanistan's next leader need to find a way to either defeat, co-opt, or share power with those who violently oppose the government. As in Iraq, it will also be necessary to find common ground with some elements of the insurgency. Senior Afghan officials acknowledge that they have been talking to the Taliban for some time. But, like the Sunnis in Iraq in 2005, the Taliban shunned the polls. Other avenues must now be found to bring those willing to talk to the table.   

Second, Afghanistan's next president must get serious about improving governance, justice, and the rule of law. Improved security alone will not arrest the slide towards chaos. It must be accompanied by a real effort to help Afghan institutions deliver basic services to the population. Only tangible improvements in daily life will close the growing "confidence gap" between the Afghan state and its citizens.  

In the coming weeks, the Obama administration will face some decisions about its course in Afghanistan. And while the United States is trying to do its part, the strategy put forth has come up short. President Obama's team announced a "civilian surge" in March, but five months later it has filled only a third of the State Department positions it set for Afghanistan.

And even if the Obama administration does deliver on its "smart power" rhetoric -- more  development and better diplomacy -- it won't matter if Afghanistan's leaders fail to step up to plate. So, regardless of who wins, the Obama administration must make clear to the victor its expectation for real progress: The next government in Kabul must get serious about fighting both corruption and narco trafficking. And it must make a real effort to build state institutions.

To be sure the United States can no longer afford to foster a dangerous and dysfunctional culture of dependency among Afghanistan's leadership. President Hamid Karzai's pardoning of five senior drug traffickers last month did not advance stability. (Transparency International now ranks Afghanistan as the fifth most corrupt country in the world.) It should come as no surprise that more Afghans are turning to the Taliban for rough, but decisive, justice.

Many observers will expect requests for additional U.S. troops for Afghanistan later this year. But it would be foolish for the United States to send more troops and continue spending billions more in Afghanistan without stronger commitments on governance and rule of law from the country's next president. The United States can help, but only if it has a serious partner in Afghanistan. 

Brian Katulis and Hardin Lang are senior fellows at the Center for American Progress and the Center for Strategic and International Studies, respectively. Both were election observers in Afghanistan last week as part of a U.S.-sponsored delegation organized by Democracy International.



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