Fontaine and Nagl on Afghan Elections
Why Karzai's stolen election and runoff vote might not matter as much we think
Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai's brazenly stolen reelection has drawn the ire of the U.S. foreign policy establishment and commentators concerned that Karzai's legitimacy problem could mar the entire mission in Afghanistan. Bending to international pressure, Karzai announced today that he would submit to a runoff vote to be held in November. The prospect of a runoff raised much speculation about the likelihood of a power shift in Kabul and its effect on American efforts. But last week, conservative foreign policy experts Richard Fontaine and John Nagl (Fontaine was a national security adviser for Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign), argued in the L.A. Times that we're overemphasizing the importance of Afghanistan's political leadership.
This is not to say that a stolen presidential election is meaningless. But our main goal should be helping the Afghan government work at the local level -- providing the marginal but tangible improvements in security, governance and prosperity that ordinary Afghans say they want, and stopping the corruption and abuses they personally contend with and resent.
Ironically, the greatest effect of Afghanistan's botched election may be felt outside the country -- reinforcing doubts in the United States and Europe about whether a corrupt Afghan government really deserves our help. But this misses the point. We are in Afghanistan because its takeover by the Taliban would be catastrophic for American national interests. The Taliban seeks to achieve that goal by exploiting any gaps it can find between the government and the people. Our task is to see clearly the causes for these gaps and take the steps necessary to close them.
With a weak Afghanistan government that exercises little control and has deep corruption problems, how much does the president even matter? Fontaine and Nagl's case for the importance of providing security before good government suggests that the biggest actor in Afghanistan politics remains the U.S. Unlike in Iran, where a stolen election was met with weeks of protests and violence, news of Karzai's fraud and acceptance of runoff election seems to have had greater impact in Washington, D.C., than in Kabul. As Fontaine and Nagl note, Afghan grievances are with local government, not with the national government with which they rarely interact. "The inroads the Taliban has made mainly reflect the failures and abuses of the Afghan government at the local level, not transcendent grievances about ethnic or sectarian divides." That they made this argument a week ago, when it was less clear than it is today, underscores the column's prescience.