Since Gen. Stanley McChrystal submitted his assessment of the war in Afghanistan to the Pentagon in September, President Obama has been weighing it, meeting frequently with his national security team for deliberations on the 40,000-troop request--and, all the while, waiting for Afghanistan to hold its run-off election on November 7. It gave the president more time to make his decision, avoided introducing an element that could affect Afghan politics, and would have given him firmer footing on which to announce his new policy--namely, knowing who Afghanistan's next president would be.
Now that run-off election won't happen: President Hamid Karzai's challenger, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, withdrew over the weekend and Afghanistan's election commission has subsequently declared Karzai the winner. Obama's time frame has been thrown off. Perhaps this means he'll announce his decision soon; perhaps it doesn't.
If the president has been looking for some sort of sign, this weekend's developments were a bad one.
On Saturday, Abdullah voiced concerns of widespread fraud as he withdrew. One million votes had been thrown out after the first round of the election in August--which had given a victory to President Hamid Karzai before they were revoked--and Abdullah had called for Karzai to replace the head of the country's Independent Election Commission. Karzai refused, and, predicting that another election would be no better than the first, Abdullah stepped aside.
Speaking at a rally on Saturday, Abdullah said he was withdrawing because a "transparent election is not possible."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, tried to spin it the other way: "I don't think it has anything to do with the legitimacy of the election," she told reporters on Saturday. "It's a personal choice."
If President Obama was looking for an indication that democracy can function just fine in Afghanistan, that corruption isn't such a problem and that, given a do-over, Afghanistan can conduct an election without fraud--or perhaps for either a new regime or a new leaf for Karzai--he didn't get them.
We don't know for certain how heavily these factors are weighing on President Obama, but they do appear to be weighing.
In an appearance on CNN's "State of the Union" Oct. 18, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel said, "What American forces are expected to do is create space for the Afghans to fill."
"Do we have a credible partner to fill the space we're going to create?" he asked.
Obama's waiting period has been posed as an effort to let Afghanistan's internal politics work themselves out before putting more U.S. lives at risk--to at least attain some sort of certainty before deciding wither sending more troops is worth it.
Abdullah's withdrawal does mean that a run-off won't happen, but it doesn't mean that Afghanistan's political turmoil has been resolved.
So, while Obama no longer has a hard date to adhere to, we may well see him wait for things to simmer down--to see if Karzai changes any elements or figures within his government heading into a second term, or if violence escalates after the announcement.
Nov. 7 was an easy date to peg his decision to. Now, he's left with something far more ambiguous.