September 09, 2009

The Best Excuse

As Josh Foust pointed out in the comments of the below post, the New York Times has some of the very best coverage of the war in Afghanistan because it employs smart, experienced journalists who take risks to travel around the country to see the war and the peoples of Afghanistan through a lens unfiltered by a public affairs officer. It's of little surprise, then, that the best and most disturbing article I have read on Afghanistan in the past few weeks was written by Dexter Filkins and Carlotta Gall:

KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghans loyal to President Hamid Karzai set up hundreds of fictitious polling sites where no one voted but where hundreds of thousands of ballots were still recorded toward the president’s re-election, according to senior Western and Afghan officials here.


The fake sites, as many as 800, existed only on paper, said a senior Western diplomat in Afghanistan, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the political delicacy of the vote. Local workers reported that hundreds, and in some cases thousands, of votes for Mr. Karzai in the election last month came from each of those places. That pattern was confirmed by another Western official based in Afghanistan.


“We think that about 15 percent of the polling sites never opened on Election Day,” the senior Western diplomat said. “But they still managed to report thousands of ballots for Karzai.”


Besides creating the fake sites, Mr. Karzai’s supporters also took over approximately 800 legitimate polling centers and used them to fraudulently report tens of thousands of additional ballots for Mr. Karzai, the officials said.


The result, the officials said, is that in some provinces, the pro-Karzai ballots may exceed the people who actually voted by a factor of 10. “We are talking about orders of magnitude,” the senior Western diplomat said.


The widening accounts of fraud pose a stark problem for the Obama administration, which has 68,000 American troops deployed here to help reverse gains by Taliban insurgents. American officials hoped that the election would help turn Afghans away from the Taliban by giving them a greater voice in government. Instead, the Obama administration now faces the prospect of having to defend an Afghan administration for the next five years that is widely seen as illegitimate.


“This was fraud en masse,” the Western diplomat said.

I think I have been pretty honest about the difficulties of the war in Afghanistan while at the same time making an argument for why we should continue and even intensify our efforts there. And I would like to think that -- for a blogger on counterinsurgency strategy and operations -- I have been pretty honest about the difficulty and limits of prosecuting counterinsurgency campaigns as a third party: to a large degree, your success is dependent upon what the host nation government does and fails to do.

In the next few days, I will post some thoughts on how the United States and its allies might adjust their strategy for Afghanistan based on the outcome of the Afghan elections. But as I have written, this really is the worst-case scenario: a small margin of victory for Karzai amidst widespread allegations of fraud. Prior to the election, this was considered to be the worst outcome for Afghanistan, the legitimacy of the Afghan government, and the international community.

When people look back on the Afghanistan war, this might be the moment when historians will judge we should have cut the cord on the Afghan government. If we believe Generals McChrystal and Petraeus, and we believe a counterinsurgency campaign to represent our best chance of success in Afghanistan, then we have a big problem. Because if we believe what we ourselves have learned about counterinsurgency campaigns, we understand that we cannot be successful in one if the host nation government is seen as increasingly illegitimate -- and that's what the Karzai government is.

Legitimacy, as Lipset writes, is a relative. Its root is the belief that existing institutions are those most appropriate for society. The deeply unpopular Taliban's form of government is not seen as being a better alternative to what the Afghans currently have. But the Afghans are both losing faith and looking for something else. The United States and its allies are blamed not just for keeping Karzai in power but also for the excesses of his government, his relatives, and local officials. And for those who are calling for a withdrawal from Afghanistan, this election presents the best possible excuse to do so.

Missing from that excuse alone, of course, is a discussion of how the United States and its allies will protect their interests -- or the costs of withdrawal. And that's why I do not see withdrawal as an option and will sketch out some alternatives before I leave on Friday for a three-week research trip. But there can be no question: these elections hurt the United States and its allies, Afghan and Western. We must have a clear answer for how we will respond to the challenge, or else the chorus for withdrawal will grow louder.