Bullets Trump Ballots in Afghanistan's Elections

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Manan Vatsyayana / AFP / Getty Images

An Afghan election worker sits next to ballot boxes at the Independent Election Commission (IEC) warehouse in Kabul on September 19.

Sure, Afghanistan's fourth democratic election since the 2001 overthrow of the Taliban was blighted by low turnout thanks to Taliban violence, and by familiar allegations of widespread ballot fraud, but none of that will have much impact on Afghanistan's future.

The fact that the 3.6 million votes cast on Saturday was the lowest tally of the four elections held since 2001 is a testament to the resurgence of the Taliban insurgency, whose attacks on poll workers and candidates forced more than 1 in 6 polling stations to remain closed. And the numerous fraud allegations mean that the results of the parliamentary election may not be known for months. But all the main stakeholders in Afghanistan know that the contest among the politicians who ran in Saturday's election is of marginal significance; the key political contest that will shape Afghanistan's future is being waged between the Taliban insurgency and the U.S.-led NATO alliance. And it's not going very well for the Western coalition.

Given the parlous security situation, it took deep reserves of courage for more than 2,500 candidates to contest the 249 parliamentary seats, and for 3.6 million to go to the polls to choose their parliament — their sacrifice makes the alleged fraud even more cynical. But the Taliban will claim the low turnout as a victory, having called a boycott of the poll and disrupting it by violence, preventing voting particularly in the Pashtun south and east, where the civilian population is key to the U.S.-led counterinsurgency effort.

But don't expect a firestorm of protest in Western capitals over any proven ballot fraud. The outcome and transparency of the poll is of diminishing interest to the U.S. and its allies, whose focus is now on halting the Taliban's momentum and creating conditions to expedite closure in a war that appears increasingly unlikely to be won. The U.S. and its allies have reconciled themselves to working with the flawed government of President Hamid Karzai because there appear to be no viable alternatives. Even the U.S. drive to curb Afghan government corruption is reportedly undergoing a rethink, with officials suggesting that security goals are undermined when people close to the President are accused in high-profile cases that embarrass Karzai and prompt him to push back. Needless to say, of course, many Afghans are appalled at the behavior of their leaders, and the resulting sense of alienation could boost the Taliban. For that reason, many in Washington continue to insist that tackling corruption remains a key element in achieving U.S. goals in Afghanistan.

But putting the fight for good governance at the center of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan would only make sense if Washington were planning a long-term counterinsurgency war that would require American troops to be the main guarantor of security in the country for a decade or more. Instead, the Obama Administration is trying to achieve a rapid end to a war that is costing the U.S. $100 billion a year for limited strategic returns. President Obama insists that the U.S. troop commitment to Afghanistan has peaked and that a phased drawdown should begin next summer. Regardless of whether that timetable is heeded, the war is not going well, and the fact that even the perennially upbeat General David Petraeus concedes that overcoming the Taliban could take another nine or 10 years is unlikely to be well received in Washington.

The debate that will frame the Administration's assessment of its Afghanistan strategy later this year will focus on what the U.S. can realistically expect to achieve in Afghanistan. Many in Washington believe that the Taliban is an indigenous movement that can't be defeated militarily — most agree that it can't be won in the next few years — and that defeating the Taliban is not essential to Western security needs. The primary objective in a narrower version of U.S. war aims in Afghanistan is to deny al-Qaeda a base of operations, and that requires working with power brokers capable of enforcing their writ on the ground — often at the expense of good governance. Corruption and patronage are, after all, hardwired into the Afghan local power equation: when U.S. covert operatives first entered Afghanistan in late 2001 on a mission to take down the Taliban, the key weapon they carried was suitcases full of cash to tempt local warlords into switching sides.

Most of the region's main players, including President Karzai himself, are operating on the assumption that the only plausible endgame for the war in Afghanistan is some form of political settlement with the Taliban — and reports from the region suggest that the pursuit of such a settlement, with Pakistan acting as broker, has already begun via discreet talks. The bottom line in such a settlement would be for the Taliban to agree to prevent territory under its control from being used to export terrorism, and to accept that it will not be able to restore its theocratic rule over the whole country — some form of power sharing would be inevitable, with the Taliban likely to end up as the dominant political authority in the Pashtun south and east. But despite reports that Taliban leaders are open to a different approach to wielding power and hosting al-Qaeda, achieving a deal would be far from easy. The Taliban's military momentum diminishes its incentive to compromise, and the leaders of the Northern Alliance that fought the Taliban for years and brought President Karzai to power are fiercely opposed to the restoration of the movement to any position of power. Still, the distribution of power in Afghanistan is clearly going to be determined by the outcome of efforts to broker a political solution among those who wield military force on the ground. And in that respect, Saturday's vote was, unfortunately, a sideshow.