The White House's release of the readout from President Barack Obama's recent phone call with Afghan President Hamid Karzai signifies a shift in the U.S. approach to Karzai's government. While stressing the importance of holding a "fair, credible, timely and Afghan-led" election, President Obama made clear that the ball is in Karzai's court when it comes to signing the Bilateral Security Agreement or BSA, which would allow for a small U.S. military contingent to stay in Afghanistan beyond 2014 to train and support Afghan forces.
By emphasizing the election over the BSA, President Obama has increased his leverage over the Afghan president. It's a risky move- in order to retain a post-2014 presence in Afghanistan, either Karzai has to reverse his position on not signing the BSA until after the elections, or the elections will have to be held timely and smoothly.
Given Afghanistan's difficult and fraud-filled election in 2009, it seems reckless to pin hopes for Afghanistan's future on the next presidential election. But there are also reasons to be more optimistic.
In the past, Afghan elections may have been more about collecting votes than convincing voters, but the 2014 campaign so far seems to be showing greater citizen awareness and a greater deference by politicians to what voters want from their leaders. This time, Afghans realize that they have a real choice between a decent slate of candidates for the April 2014 vote, as well as perhaps a real opportunity to affect their political destiny. At present, Afghanistan's cities are frequented with campaign posters and televised debates among the candidates are held every few days, generating huge interest.
President Karzai's influence is also beginning to wane. He has tried to retain his relevance by refusing to sign the BSA with Washington until after the election. His thinking seems to have been that as long as he had not signed the agreement, Washington would have to kowtow to him. However, Karzai miscalculated. Washington appears to have accepted the fact that Karzai will not sign the pact until after the election, making him an increasingly irrelevant man.
Karzai gambled that the United States needed Afghanistan more than the other way around. With Washington accepting that it will not get the BSA signed soon, Karzai must be beginning to realize that Afghanistan does in fact very much needs Washington's continuing support. The BSA will allow a small troop contingent to remain, and that troop contingent will allow $4 billion per year to be channeled to paying for the Afghan national security forces. Without this funding, the army and police will collapse.
Since Karzai has linked the BSA to the election, and since he knows the BSA is necessary to pay for the government and security forces, Karzai must now ensure that the election happens as smoothly as possible or acquiesce and sign the BSA himself. The nine remaining presidential hopefuls have invested significant financial resources in this election, and are also risking their own security, as the recent ambush of one of the candidates' convoys demonstrated. None of these candidates are running to preside over a bankrupt country and therefore nearly all of the candidates say that they will sign the BSA, if elected.
The Obama administration has properly avoided meddling in the politics of the election, unlike in 2009 when U.S. officials made a big show of appearing at campaign rallies of Karzai's opponents. The White House emphasized that Washington would not support any candidate. Afghanistan's electoral institutions, meanwhile, have performed well in planning for the polls. The candidates have campaigned with verve. National observer organizations are planning to be present in large numbers at polling stations. And on April 5, the voters will have the opportunity to decide who their next president will be.
The election will not be perfect and some fraud is inevitable. But the U.S. should be cautious about making snap judgments. In the end, all of the candidates have a stake in the legitimacy of the election. Also, this is the third electoral cycle for Afghans, which includes a large number of younger voters who have come of voting age since the last election. Afghan youth are paying attention to the campaigns and are following the debates and expressing their expectations for a legitimate transfer of power. They are unlikely to remain silent if there is massive fraud in April vote.
Afghans over the past thirty years have seen monarchy, communism, anarchy, and theocracy, and in the past decade they have embraced democracy as a system of governance. A peaceful and democratic transfer of power-which has never happened in Afghanistan-would be a huge boost to the confidence of this young democracy. A campaign among candidates that highlights differences without being overly divisive would demonstrate a cohesive political class eager to solve Afghanistan's problems. A decently-run election would provide a new government in Kabul with the legitimacy it needs to sign the BSA, reset its relationship with its international partners, particularly the United States, and get down to the business of governing.
Scott Smith is the director of Afghanistan and Central Asia programs at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP).
The views reflected here are solely those of the authors.
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