What's the optimal outcome for the U.S. in Thursday's Afghan election? In the last presidential race in 2004, that question would have been a no-brainer. Hamid Karzai was Washington's man, campaigning as the incumbent in Afghanistan's first post-Taliban election, having been installed by international edict after the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.
Today, however, Karzai epitomizes a political status quo deemed untenable in Washington, because its rampant corruption, cronyism and failure to deliver security and services to the citizenry has enabled a massive Taliban resurgence. "The U.S. priority in Afghanistan today is waging a counterinsurgency war, in which good governance in an important element," says Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International studies, who recently visited Afghanistan as part of the team advising U.S. commander General Stanley McChrystal. By the measure of good governance, Karzai has been a failure, and nobody expects much different if he's reelected.
However, unlike in 2004, Karzai this time faces serious electoral challengers candidates liked and respected by the U.S., and whom many in Kabul believe have been encouraged by Washington to run. While Karzai remains the frontrunner, chances are growing that his opponents could force him to contest a runoff race in October by denying him the 50% plus one vote needed for a first-round victory.
Despite its frustrations with Karzai, however, the U.S. is not pinning its hopes on the incumbent being replaced. "Although the election is very important, It would be a mistake to put too much importance on its outcome," suggests Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations. "The question of which personality is president may be less important than the structure of governance in Afghanistan. If Karzai were to lose, the next incumbent would face many of the same pressures that Karzai has faced. There are serious structural problem of splintered power and authority, and central government weakness, that would affect whomever was president. Unless the United States uses the leverage we have to change the incentives for malign behavior, a different head of state is likely to face many of the same problems that this head of state does. It will take a lot more than this election to shape the sort of governance we need to make a success of the war."
Washington's priority is a counterinsurgency strategy aimed at halting the Taliban's momentum by the end of next year, by providing security, the rule of law and economic development in communities where the insurgents currently hold sway. To that end, having Afghans participate at all in the election process could help legitimize the new political order in Afghanistan which may be precisely why the Taliban is waging a campaign of violence and intimidation to keep people away from the polls on Thursday. For the Taliban, the optimal outcome is a low turnout producing a new wave of turmoil that further undermines the legitimacy of the government in Kabul.
Creating security conditions to enable more Afghans to vote has been the tactical priority of U.S. efforts for much of this year, deflecting from undertaking the development and reconstruction work deemed critical to the success of the counterinsurgency campaign. And even then, with the Taliban posing an active threat to polling in almost half of the country, there's a real danger of a turnout too low to legitimize the election. "If it's under 30%, there will be appeals by almost everyone to say that this is not a legitimate election, and that we'll need another election," Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid, who has written two authoritative books on the Taliban, told the Council on Foreign Relations this week. "The other problem is that there are going to be massive charges of rigging no matter who wins. If Karzai wins, the opposition is going to accuse him of rigging the election. If Karzai does not do well, he'll say his voters in the south, where the Taliban insurgency is strong, were not allowed to come out and vote."
Cordesman warns that those looking to cry foul already have plenty of material to work with. "Karzai has spent months trying to exploit traditional ties and allegiances by buying bloc votes from ex-warlords, local leaders, and power brokers," Cordesman noted in emailed comments. "The joke is that he has promised governorships to three times more such leaders than there are provinces. The reality is that Karzai's top running mates are the equivalent of warlords, and he [has] done everything possible to buy the election long before the vote will actually occur. As a result, the real question is how many Afghan voters will actually stay bought when they go to the polls."
Whatever its outcome, the election is likely to leave the U.S. facing a tricky political environment for its counterinsurgency strategy. "No one doubts that any future Karzai government will still be tied to corruption, favoritism, and power brokers with links to organized crime, narcotics trafficking, and officials who sometimes have links to the Taliban," says Cordesman. On the other hand, "If Abdullah should win, a man who has never governed or administered any significant body will take over. Just as would be the case with Karzai, Abdullah will then be faced with ministries that lack capacity, are corrupt, that do not serve most Afghans outside Kabul with any competence, and that will still control virtually all state funds ... There will be no meaningful government services in far too many areas. There will be no Afghan source of security. Instead, there will be a corrupt and ineffective police, and no courts and jails."
Regardless of the result, then, the post-election challenge facing the U.S. and its allies will be to use the leverage offered by the fact that Afghanistan's central government remains almost entirely dependent on Western troops and financial assistance to create effective local and provincial government, and strengthen the ministries of the central government, fighting corruption and delivering the services that Afghans desperately need. The outcome of the election will simply signal just how difficult meeting that challenge will be.