Term limits preclude Hamid Karzai from seeking re-election in the Afghan presidential election slated to occur one year from today (parliamentary elections will follow in 2015). So, for the first time since 2001, Afghanistan will soon have a new chief executive along with a new parliament, a leadership transition that has immense implications for U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, yet one that has elicited little discussion in Washington. Here, policy makers and pundits chatter about talking with the Taliban and argue vociferously about the number of troops that should remain after 2014, an argument that is utterly irrelevant if the Afghan elections go badly, particularly the presidential election, and Afghanistan descends into civil war. Whether it's 8,000 or 13,600 or 20,000 or more or less, the post-2014 U.S. and NATO force will be too small to halt Afghan political and military disintegration.
The success or failure of Afghanistan's upcoming elections does not depend so much upon who is elected but rather how they are elected. Regardless of who wins, Afghans must believe the electoral process was reasonably fair and representative or the new government will be viewed as illegitimate, prompting spiraling violence and instability. Despite these existential stakes, however, the United States has shied away from publicly expressing its expectations and concerns about details of the developing Afghan electoral process. This unspoken caution springs from the circumstances surrounding Afghanistan's 2009 national elections, during which the international community roundly criticized President Karzai for presiding over an election marred by significant fraud and Karzai, in turn, accused the international community, particularly U.S. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, of wrongfully intruding upon Afghan sovereignty by supporting opposition candidates.
Given the hour and stakes, the United States should move beyond its circumspect and cautious approach, and instead clearly signal to all candidates and parties that it will use all of its legitimate influence in pursuit of credible elections. If needed, the US should spend more than the roughly 200 million dollars earmarked for the Afghan electoral process by USAID. When totaled, even the most sweeping electoral support costs are paltry when compared to the cost variations associated with the residual troop level debate. For example, even by conservative estimates the choice of 20,000 instead of 8,000 residual U.S. forces in Afghanistan means at least 12 billion dollars in annual additional expense.
Afghans recall the flawed elections of 2009, and many or most Afghans expect no better in 2014. Not only must the electoral process itself be strengthened, somehow public perceptions of the electoral process must also improve in the short time remaining before the presidential election. It would be a tragedy if a legitimate victory by a Karzai-backed candidate were viewed as illegitimate simply because a false public perception existed that Karzai abused his powers when he hadn't. Few besides Al Qaeda and the Taliban should want such a result.
A major public relations campaign is needed to counter Afghan voter skepticism and persuade the Afghan people that neither President Karzai nor his administration will inappropriately tamper with the upcoming elections. To outweigh voter skepticism and insidious rumors, the ideal public relations campaign would be broadly supported by diverse Afghan elites and tout an honest and robust effort to address electoral corruption, including campaign finance issues. And whenever the Karzai regime's use of executive powers could directly or indirectly influence the elections, President Karzai should publicly engage in a broadly consultative process across a credible spectrum of political elites to guide the use of his power. Secretary of State John Kerry's uniquely strong relationship with President Karzai could be critically important in this effort. Not only might Secretary Kerry influence Karzai to engage in such a publicly consultative process, Kerry's credible voice of approval of both the process and the resultant electoral decisions can help sway a skeptical Afghan populous.
Unfortunately, again with only a year to go, Afghanistan's election law has not been finalized by its parliament. Here, too, U.S. officials should weigh in quite frankly concerning their expectations and concerns. Further dithering compresses the time for electoral preparations and lessens the likelihood of publicly perceived electoral legitimacy. Worse, delay heightens the likelihood that President Karzai will fill the void with an executive decree establishing the electoral process. If this occurs, it must be accompanied by an extraordinarily robust and very public consultative process plus broad public agreement by diverse political elites. Again, absent broadly credible endorsements, such an executive decree may fuel false public perceptions that Karzai is trying to manipulate the outcome. The end result could be disastrous whatever the residual US troop levels.
President Karzai has said the democratic transfer of power from his administration to an elected successor is the greatest legacy he could leave his country. He's quite right if Afghans accept the election results as fair. Given the hour and stakes, the U.S. must now act openly to help assure they are.
Former Congressman Jim Marshall is the President of the United States Institute of Peace.
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