Like Napoleon advancing on Moscow, western proponents of Afghanistan's second post-9/11 presidential election face a new and forbidding enemy. This foe fields no regiments of guards, no jihadi skirmishers; he possesses no cannon or improvised explosive devices; he has but one strategy: chaos. The Russians called this enemy "General Winter". And to his assault, Napoleon famously succumbed.
Now, on 7 November, as bitter cold, snow and ice sweep across its sparse valleys and mountain tops, poor, weary Afghanistan must try to do better than Bonaparte, by plucking a democratic victory from the jaws of calamitous defeat.
Whichever way you look at it, the second round run-off offers a chilling prospect. Arranging a nationwide vote in less than three weeks would test the resources and organisation of the best regulated of European nation states. To attempt to do so in Afghanistan, one of the world's most impoverished countries, bereft of modern infrastructure, amid an advancing armed insurrection and in conditions of seething political division and freezing cold is an epic labour of Sisyphean and possibly foolhardy audacity.
For the resurgent Taliban, the shameful necessity, in effect, of re-running August's stolen poll amounts to vindication of their view that the "crusader process" of representative governance has no place here. It also offers a second bite at the spoiler cherry. Taliban attempts to disrupt the first round were energetic, bloody and fairly effective. A daunting reprise of these violent pressure tactics can now be anticipated. British infantrymen in Helmand, along with other Nato contingents, will again find themselves defending the indefensible.
"We know it will be difficult and require sacrifice. But we are committed to this effort," said Senator John Kerry in Kabul, after strong-arming a reluctant President Hamid Karzai, who liked the result the way it was. Trouble is, Kerry will be safely back in Washington along with Barack Obama's dithering Afghan policy review team when the suicide attacks, the shootings and the bombings resume in earnest. The brunt of Kerry's "required sacrifice" will be borne not on Capitol Hill but in the family homes of anonymous soldiers and civilians hailing from Kandahar and Kabul, Kansas and Kentucky, Kettering and Keighley.
The prognosis gets worse. Having looked on as one million votes were invalidated by a UN-backed commission amid overwhelming evidence of systematic fraud, Afghan voters, whatever their tribal and ethnic loyalties, may be understandably loth to riskily dip their fingers in the ink pot once again.
In the more unstable parts of some southern provinces, the August turnout was often more imaginary than real. Nationally, it was little more than 30%. Karzai's Pashtun supporters, and the Tajik backers of his opponent, Abdullah Abdullah, can be expected to stick with their man. But many among the 5 million, out of roughly 15 million eligible voters, who cast a ballot last time may refuse to do so again.
Such disillusionment is unsurprising. When Gordon Brown spoke to Karzai this week, he told him: if you agree to stand in a second round, you'll win. Given this all but foregone conclusion, voters not allied to any specific bloc, plus the 10 million who stayed away in the first place, may write off the whole convoluted process as the bastard product of what both Kabul officialdom and the Taliban decry, for different reasons, as intrusive "western meddling".
If such a point is reached, and perhaps it already has been, the whole elaborately Bush-ian enterprise of spreading the light of parliamentary democracy across a benighted developing nation will have again been terminally discredited. Having pressed ahead with the first round despite grave misgivings about security, having extended Karzai's term to suit a superimposed election calendar, having brushed away strong pre-poll evidence of fraudulent intent, the US, the UN and leading western powers like Britain and France conspired prematurely to declare a triumph.
For a moment, it was the fatuous 2001 "Fall of Kabul" storyline all over again.
"We had what appears to be a successful election in Afghanistan, despite the Taliban's efforts to disrupt it," Obama declared on 20 August, with stuffed ballot boxes barely sealed. "We have to focus on finishing the job in Afghanistan but it is going to take some time." Still celebrating, he elaborated the following day. "This was an important step forward in the Afghan people's effort to take control of their future ... The election was run by the Afghan people. In fact, it was the first democratic election run by Afghans in over three decades."
What Afghans got, in reality, was the run-around. And now the election has, in effect, been taken out of Afghan hands by the same people whose serial misjudgments spawned the whole sorry fiasco.
Knowing this now is cold comfort. For it's hard not conclude, whichever way you look at it, that the legitimacy of the Afghan governmental system created by the US after the Taliban were kicked out of Kabul in 2001 has been fatally compromised. And so too, perhaps, has public trust in the self-appointed foreign guarantors of Afghanistan's future.
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