Afghanistan's Electoral Disaster

Afghanistan’s presidential election has made the country’s situation worse, not better.

Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, is worried about the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, the increasing sophistication of the Taliban insurgency and the growing erosion of support for this war among Americans. None of this is good news for the Obama administration, which campaigned in part on drawing a distinction between George W. Bush's war of choice in Iraq versus the necessity of finishing the job in Afghanistan.

The recent presidential election doesn't make matters better. According to the script, Afghanistan's poll was to show that a vast majority of Afghans want to move forward and that the Taliban is but a small and disruptive minority of recalcitrants. High voter turnout was expected to legitimize the Afghan regime and show how, with additional forces, southern and central Afghanistan could be cleared of the Taliban and held for the government.

Instead, we have a disputed election, one where a clear winner is unlikely to emerge. And while we are indeed lucky that the predicted wave of electoral violence did not sweep the country, it is also hard to be optimistic when observers on the ground in places like Kandahar argue that "apathy among voters meant that only a very small number came out to exercise their right."

We have two unenviable final outcomes. There could be a new clash in Afghanistan along ethnic lines, as the Pashtun center and south rallies behind Hamid Karzai, and the Tajik and Uzbek north backs Abdullah Abdullah. Or there might be a new round of horsetrading, where Karazi's victory is recognized, but powerful northern interests are appeased-including, I suspect, slowing down efforts to rein in the regional militias. But neither of these produce what the United States really needs: a central government capable of controlling violence and exercising real authority over all of Afghanistan's territory-or at least having sufficient authority to close down any terrorist training camps, and keep the country from being effectively partitioned into different zones.

Depending on how the provincial elections turn out, perhaps it may be time to focus more attention on a decentralized Afghanistan, where the central government works largely to coordinate the country's foreign affairs and mediate between the provincial elites. It seems difficult to see how, given the disputed poll, non-Pashtuns will willingly acknowledge election results so divided on ethnic lines, unless there is some sort of accommodation. At the same time, the United States is not going to allow Hamid Karzai to follow the traditional path to consolidation of power-the use of force against rival leaders and rebellious regions.

So if the elections were to provide a "silver bullet" to provide the United States with cover to begin disengaging from Afghanistan, that objective was not met.


Nikolas K. Gvosdev, a senior editor at The National Interest, is a professor of national-security studies at the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed are entirely his own.