Politicians love photo-ops. So when Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) appeared alongside Hamid Karzai as the beleaguered Afghan president announced that he would agree to a runoff election, it was hardly surprising. Kerry was doing what politicians do.
Moreover, the senator was in Kabul to supplement the Obama administration's efforts to lean on Karzai to hold another presidential vote, given widespread evidence that the one held in August was rigged. When Karzai claimed victory then, his main opponent, former Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, cried foul, a chorus of international criticism arose and an Afghan government infamous for its ineptitude and sleaziness looked even more illegitimate.
It's this tricky context that makes Kerry's photo-op problematic.
The Obama administration knows that no amount of firepower in the war will substitute for an Afghan government that is minimally effective, has the confidence of its people and is seen as independent. The Taliban knows this as well, which is why, in addition to mounting an insurgency and launching suicide bombings, it has been busy painting the Americans as occupiers and Karzai as their puppet. The spectacle of the 6-foot-tall U.S. senator standing next to the Afghan president, who everyone knows was arm-twisted into making a concession he had resisted, simply helps the Taliban's PR campaign.