Michele Flournoy and Michael O’Hanlon are right to argue in this Wall Street Journal op-ed that the U.S. has a big stake in the outcome of Afghanistan’s April 2014 presidential election. They are right, moreover, that we must do everything possible to safeguard the integrity of the balloting process. But I disagree with their assertion–which amounts to a bipartisan article of faith in today’s Washington–that “the United States and other key outside nations shouldn’t and won’t try to pick a winner.”
Tell it to Pakistan. Do Flournoy and O’Hanlon have any confidence that the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence will refrain from picking a winner? Or Iran’s Quds Forces? What about the brutal and corrupt warlords and power brokers who dominate Afghan politics today in collusion with current president Hamid Karzai? Will they refrain from picking a candidate too?
Hardly. These actors and many others are going to use their bucks and, if necessary, bombs and bullets too, to shape the outcome in ways that are beneficial to their interests–and inimical to the interests of most Afghans and of the United States and our foreign partners who have invested so much in that country’s future.
Given the stakes and the reality that the election will not be an antiseptic exercise in good government, I believe we have no choice but to designate and support the best possible candidate for president. We should not look for someone who would be an American puppet but rather for a strong, honest, hard-working leader who will serve the long-term interests of Afghanistan.
This is, of course, an undertaking fraught with obvious risks. But as I argued in this Weekly Standard article, efforts to cultivate foreign leaders have paid off in the past. Look at how Edward Lansdale promoted Ramon Magsaysay in the Philippines in the early 1950s.
In fairness, such efforts have backfired too, and there is always the danger of blowback from more active intervention in the Afghan political process. But I think the greatest danger of all is to sit on the sidelines, congratulating ourselves on our moral purity, while malign actors steal the election and install a new president who will be weak, corrupt–and no match for the Taliban.