A few days ago, Brookings’ Michael O’Hanlon took to the pages of The Washington Post to argue that the United States should actively interfere in the next Afghan election to pick a winner. O’Hanlon writes:
Some may wish to avoid interfering in the elections of a sovereign nation, but Afghan reformers are calling out for help. When I visited Afghanistan in May, several suggested to me that the United States pick a winner so they could rally around him. Also, the international presence in Afghanistan will have enormous influence whether we acknowledge it or not. Supporting the Karzai government is actually a form of political intervention, as it gives the incumbent great resources, such as control of state-run media, to try to choose his successor. Moreover, with U.S. officials making decisions about how much money and how many troops to devote to Afghanistan’s long-term assistance, we have a right to say that the level of our support will be strongly influenced by the choices Afghans make — even if we will not (and should not) try to pick a winner… U.S. diplomats, ideally backed by other foreign missions in Kabul, including such key Muslim states as Turkey, Indonesia and Tanzania (which have impressive track records in fighting corruption and improving governance in recent years), should also be willing to say, publicly if necessary, which candidates would be unacceptable as president.
O’Hanlon is a serious scholar and a formidable strategic thinker. He is not an instant expert chasing after headlines; his ideas deserve to be taken seriously. In this case, however, he is not only wrong, but if the Obama administration and U.S. military followed his advice, the results would be counterproductive to the extreme.
Let’s put aside that Tanzania doesn’t have an embassy in Afghanistan, and few Afghans care what Turkey thinks. We should also open to question the comments of those with whom O’Hanlon spoke during his recent trip to Afghanistan: The U.S. military’s horse-and-pony shows are much like grand juries: the bubble is controlled and so is the outcome, simply by controlling where the jurors can go and with which witnesses they can interact.
For very simple reasons, the idea of mucking about in the elections would backfire and benefit only Karzai, whom O’Hanlon is right to castigate as a malign influence. He proposes Ashraf Ghani and Hanif Atmar, as suitable candidates deserving of U.S. backing. Both are talented people but very much unelectable. Picking either would be about as wise as betting on Jon Huntsman to get the nod at the Republican National Convention.
The problem is also in the principle. If the United States interferes in elections, it will affirm the worst beliefs of Afghans who interpreted the overbearing attitudes of the late Richard Holbrooke and Peter Galbraith as direct interference. Not only did their actions create a backlash among ordinary Afghans, but they also convinced Karzai and his supporters to do anything possible to rig the polls.
O’Hanlon is correct that Karzai is a disaster. We have seen this picture before, however, because whenever American policymakers concentrate more on supporting an individual than in building a system, the results are the same: The individual grows corrupt and power-hungry, cutting off rivals at the knees. Generals and diplomats, worried more about short-term metrics than long-term stability, fear anything that undercuts their partner, playing into the partners’ hands as he consolidates power.
What should the United States do? Frankly, anything may be too late. Our original sin was imposing a system on Afghanistan with so much power vested in the president. Not only was that system unnatural in Afghan affairs, but also throughout Afghan history, there is a direct correlation between insurgency and the speed of reform. More important, is President Obama’s timeline. No matter what the merits of an electoral plan, so long as an artificial timeline to withdraw hangs over Afghanistan, then American influence rests on quicksand. It’s not even clear that Afghanistan has the resources to hold elections, nor that donors are willing to pony up the several hundred million dollars to make it possible. Elections challenge security, but rather than surge troops into Afghanistan during elections, Obama plans to withdraw them.
If O’Hanlon wants to rally international partners—and avoiding the malign influence of both Iran and Pakistan will be difficult under such circumstances—then the pressure must be for an empowerment of the parliament and local officials at the expense of the president.