With the UN's reputation in tatters and Washington in denial over Abdullah's exit, Obama must turn this round or look like a loser
In Afghanistan's disreputable 2009 presidential election, everyone's a loser. Hamid Karzai's "victory", achieved by fraud and now by default, has left him a tarnished, diminished figure. The US administration that orchestrated the whole process still lacks the credible partner in Kabul it says is essential for success.
The UN's reputation for probity lies critically wounded in the gutter, a victim of inaction and bitter infighting among officials. Nato's mission looks even more rudderless and ill-defined than before. The cause of the Afghan people, bemused and terrorised by turns, is no further forward and may in truth have been set back.
US officials risked ridicule by claiming the election process remained credible, despite the decision of Abdullah Abdullah, Karzai's only remaining rival, to pull out of a second round run-off. Referring to wildly dissimilar American election precedents, secretary of state Hillary Clinton said his withdrawal did not necessarily destroy the validity of the run-off "“ even if only one candidate was running.
"It's not surprising that he [Abdullah] is not going to contest an election he wasn't going to win," an unnamed White House official told the Washington Post. "This is not a challenge in any way to the process of choosing the next Afghan president. This is politics." The official went on: "However this shakes out, it does not affect the legitimacy of the process."
This creative interpretation of the weekend's events ignored the fact that it was Hillary Clinton and Richard Holbrooke, the US special Afghanistan-Pakistan representative, who only a few days ago strong-armed Karzai into accepting a second round. It was essential, they said, given that his supposed first-round victory was fraudulent to the point of farce.
The White House spinners also dodged the obvious conclusion, arising from Abdullah's withdrawal, that notwithstanding all their power and influence, the US, the UN, and assembled western diplomats, plus Afghanistan's discredited Independent Election Commission were unable, in the final analysis, to ensure a free and fair vote.
Abdullah's call for the replacement of compromised election officials was ignored. The UN's wish that the number of polling stations be reduced to lessen the chance of a repeat fraud received similar short shrift. It had become clear in recent days that there was little or nothing to prevent further pro-Karzai ballot-rigging on an epic scale.
Whether the run-off will go ahead remains uncertain at this point. If Abdullah cuts some kind of power-sharing or national unity deal with Karzai, it may be cancelled and further embarrassment avoided. Or it may go ahead "“ but more "smoothly", given that there will be no actual contest. Some western officials seem to be privately hoping for this sort of fudge.
Peter Galbraith, a former senior American diplomat who was sacked from the UN mission in Kabul in a row over its turning a blind eye to ballot rigging, warned last week that a fraud-stained second round would be "catastrophic for Afghanistan and the allied military mission battling the Taliban and al-Qaida". For this reason, others might say, rendering a second round irrelevant has obvious attractions.
Galbraith said a Karzai second term, however achieved, would be "tainted at home and abroad". To overcome this crisis of legitimacy, he urged the adoption of reforms put forward by Abdullah that would allow greater power-sharing among ethnic groups, the election of provincial governors, increased power for local governments, and the appointment of a prime minister and cabinet by parliament, not by the president.
Barack Obama may insist on such reforms as part of his still unfinished Afghan policy review. Reducing Karzai's powers in these ways would provide a fig leaf for Washington's abject failure to secure the democratic and governmental advances that it hoped would justify ever more costly, and ever more unpopular, US and Nato military involvement.
As of last Friday, Obama, like an ivory tower professor struggling to engage with reality, was still calling for more option papers from the Pentagon on future troop levels. The latest word in Washington is that he will increase US forces, though by fewer than the 40,000 additional troops requested by his commander, General Stanley McChrystal. They will be used to defend key Afghan cities and population centres from Taliban attack. In the countryside, US and Nato forces may shift to guerrilla-style, counter-terrorist tactics.
Maybe, given time, Obama can turn things around. But his inability to prevent the US-promoted election turning into a five-star debacle was damaging. It has left him looking like something he has rarely been in his lifetime "“ a loser, just like everyone else. The only winners yesterday were the bad guys.
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