In Afghan Election, New Tests for the U.S.

On Aug. 20, Afghanistan holds its second-ever presidential election. Millions of Afghans are expected to brave the Taliban's threats, going to the polls to reject extremism and democratically elect their leader. While holding a legitimate election is essential to strengthening Afghanistan's democratic transition, this one will also challenge the Obama administration.

This week's elections are not free of problems. The Taliban has vowed to disrupt the polls, and has warned it would cut off the fingers of those with ink stains on their thumbs, indicating they had voted. The level of violence staged by the Taliban in the run-up to the polls is in sharp contrast to their decision in 2004 not to disrupt the process. Tuesday alone, a rocket hit the presidential compound, another landed in the capital's police headquarters, a suicide bomber killed four Afghan soldiers in the central province of Uruzgan and a rocket attack injured at least 10 in the eastern city of Jalalabad.

If the Taliban deprives a large portion of Pashtuns in the south and east of their votes, it will not only enhance its authority in the eyes of the people but also call into question the legitimacy of the polls. That's because ethnic Pashtuns make up a plurality of Afghanistan's population, so without their votes, the legitimacy of the result is thrown into doubt.

By casting away influence in Iraq, Obama has demonstrated that defiance of the U.S. pays dividends.

Meanwhile, many candidates are already complaining about fraud. Some 17 million people are registered to vote, but since half of Afghanistan's 29 million people are under age 18, the number of registered voters looks suspiciously high. Former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, incumbent President Hamid Karzai's top challenger, told thousands at a rally in Kabul Monday that he will win the election "if they don't steal your votes." This raises the fear of post-election challenges and protests similar to those that struck Iran in June.

For the White House, however, even a successful election will mark the beginning of the challenge rather than the end. Karzai will likely win re-election because the opposition remains fractured, although Abdullah's surging momentum might force a run-off. A recent International Republican Institute poll gave Karzai a commanding lead over his 30 rivals with 44% of votes. Abdullah followed with 26%, while former World Bank official Ashraf Ghani, whom Newsweek in June called "The Challenger Who May Topple Karzai," won just 6%.

An ethnic Pashtun, Karzai's support crosses ethnic lines. He has picked his two vice presidents from Hazara and Tajik ethnic groups. Gen. Abdorrashid Dostum, the Uzbek leader who obtained 10% of votes in the 2004 polls, arrived in Afghanistan Sunday from self-exile in Turkey, and endorsed Karzai.

Karzai's re-election would come at a time when relations between Kabul and Washington are at their nadir. Each side blames the other for past and present failures. During the U.S. presidential campaign, both Obama and Biden criticized progress in Afghanistan in order to take shots at George W. Bush. But Karzai took their criticism personally. Obama has since blamed Karzai--rightly--for failures to curb corruption, eradicate the drug trade and improve governance and security in Afghanistan. U.S. Ambassador Karl W. Eikenberry's meetings with rivals Ghani and Abdullah in June infuriated Karzai, who accused the Obama administration of meddling.

Karzai's rhetoric has become more confrontational since Obama's victory. Offering protection for the Taliban's leader, Mullah Omar, Karzai told the press in Kabul on Nov. 16, 2008, "If I say I want protection for Omar, then the international community has two choices: remove me or leave if they disagree. And both are good." Last month, in a campaign rally in Kandahar, Karzai reiterated his pledge to "formalize" the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan, a situation that could lead to a Strategic Framework Agreement along the lines of what the Iraqi leadership achieved. "It should be known who is the owner of the house and who is the guest," Karzai explained.

Karzai's hostility should worry Obama. Karzai's call for a timetable to withdraw foreign forces comes as the Pentagon is increasing the number of troops in Afghanistan. The Afghan president now openly rejects American requests, a trend that both Moscow and Tehran encourage. Washington no longer has the leverage over Karzai it once enjoyed.

What does this mean for the U.S.? Throughout his campaign, Obama cast Iraq as a mistake and Afghanistan as important. It may be easy for the White House to compartmentalize the conflicts, but reality is seldom so easily bifurcated. By casting away influence in Iraq, Obama has demonstrated that defiance of the U.S. pays dividends. Obama may view Afghanistan as the important war. But whether the U.S. strategy is military or diplomatic, the White House may soon learn that rhetoric comes at a cost.

Ahmad Majidyar is a research assistant at AEI.

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