Commentary Magazine


Topic: Michael O’Hanlon

Don’t Meddle in Afghanistan’s Election

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.

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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.

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Soothing Karzai

Hamid Karzai is at it again. For the second time in recent days, he has lashed out at the West, blaming foreign officials for election fraud and even reportedly threatening to join the Taliban if there is any erosion of his country’s sovereignty. Such comments — coming from the man who benefitted from election fraud and who is able to stay in power only because of all the military assistance he receives from the West — are, no doubt about it, infuriating. But they are hardly unexpected, given that Karzai has a habit of boiling over in public right after he has been pressured by the United States, which is what happened when President Obama visited Kabul.

The worst thing the administration can do in response is to hit back in an unseemly public tit-for-tit. Better to work quietly behind the scenes with Karzai, trying, as General McChrystal is, to bolster his standing as a legitimate and popular war leader while also working to improve governance at the cabinet, provincial, and district levels. To some extent, Karzai is an obstacle to lower-level progress, especially when he keeps in power his brother Ahmed Wali Karzai, whose notorious dealings in Kandahar are a major drawing card for the Taliban. But as Michael O’Hanlon and Hassina Sherjan note, Karzai is not all bad:

Karzai began his second term as president by keeping in office many of his best ministers and governors. Helmand province Gov. Gulab Mangal, Interior Minister Hanif Atmar and Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak, for example, have accomplished a good deal for their country. The Major Crimes Task Force designed to pursue cases of high-level corruption is gaining strength. And the number of trained Afghan army and police forces accompanying NATO troops into Marja, while still modest, was double the number of locally available forces accompanying U.S. Marines on similar operations in Helmand last year.

Bottom line: we don’t have any choice but to work with Karzai. Pulling U.S. troops out because we’re unhappy with him isn’t an option; our forces aren’t there as a favor to Karzai but to prevent a Taliban takeover that would be far worse for our interests than anything Karzai is likely to do in office. There is also no realistic chance of getting a new Afghan president anytime soon because Karzai was just elected to a five-year term. So we have to make the best of the current situation and try to soothe the sensitive Karzai rather than getting his back up with high-handed reprimands, especially in public.

Hamid Karzai is at it again. For the second time in recent days, he has lashed out at the West, blaming foreign officials for election fraud and even reportedly threatening to join the Taliban if there is any erosion of his country’s sovereignty. Such comments — coming from the man who benefitted from election fraud and who is able to stay in power only because of all the military assistance he receives from the West — are, no doubt about it, infuriating. But they are hardly unexpected, given that Karzai has a habit of boiling over in public right after he has been pressured by the United States, which is what happened when President Obama visited Kabul.

The worst thing the administration can do in response is to hit back in an unseemly public tit-for-tit. Better to work quietly behind the scenes with Karzai, trying, as General McChrystal is, to bolster his standing as a legitimate and popular war leader while also working to improve governance at the cabinet, provincial, and district levels. To some extent, Karzai is an obstacle to lower-level progress, especially when he keeps in power his brother Ahmed Wali Karzai, whose notorious dealings in Kandahar are a major drawing card for the Taliban. But as Michael O’Hanlon and Hassina Sherjan note, Karzai is not all bad:

Karzai began his second term as president by keeping in office many of his best ministers and governors. Helmand province Gov. Gulab Mangal, Interior Minister Hanif Atmar and Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak, for example, have accomplished a good deal for their country. The Major Crimes Task Force designed to pursue cases of high-level corruption is gaining strength. And the number of trained Afghan army and police forces accompanying NATO troops into Marja, while still modest, was double the number of locally available forces accompanying U.S. Marines on similar operations in Helmand last year.

Bottom line: we don’t have any choice but to work with Karzai. Pulling U.S. troops out because we’re unhappy with him isn’t an option; our forces aren’t there as a favor to Karzai but to prevent a Taliban takeover that would be far worse for our interests than anything Karzai is likely to do in office. There is also no realistic chance of getting a new Afghan president anytime soon because Karzai was just elected to a five-year term. So we have to make the best of the current situation and try to soothe the sensitive Karzai rather than getting his back up with high-handed reprimands, especially in public.

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Flotsam and Jetsam

Marty Peretz wonders if Obama’s “heart is with the hooligans.” Well, it’s not with those imperiled by the hooligans.

You don’t think it’s the ObamaCare, do you? “Republican candidates have extended their lead over Democrats to seven points, their biggest lead since early September, in the latest edition of the Generic Congressional Ballot. The latest Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey shows that 44% would vote for their district’s Republican congressional candidate while 37% would opt for his or her Democratic opponent.”

Well, maybe it is: “As the debate over a health care bill enters a critical stage, a new USA TODAY/Gallup Poll finds Americans inclined to oppose congressional passage of the legislation this year. The survey, taken Friday through Sunday, finds 42% against a bill, 35% in support of it. Despite nearly a year of presidential speeches, congressional hearings and TV ad campaigns by interest groups, more than one in five still doesn’t have a strong opinion. When pressed about how they were leaning, 49% overall said they would urge their member of Congress to vote against a bill; 44% would urge a vote for it.”

From Gallup: “Since the start of his presidency, U.S. President Barack Obama’s approval rating has declined more among non-Hispanic whites than among nonwhites, and now, fewer than 4 in 10 whites approve of the job Obama is doing as president.”

We could always lower taxes or lessen regulatory burdens on employers, I suppose: “Top Federal Reserve officials expect unemployment to remain elevated for years to come, according to new projections released Tuesday, suggesting that the economic recovery will be too gradual to create rapid improvement in the job market.”

Michael Gerson observes Eric Holder’s “embarrassing, but also offensive” Senate appearance and his subsequent interview in which he admitted talking only to his wife and his brother outside government. “When Holder announced his decision, many jumped to his defense, assuming that the Justice Department had made its decision carefully. That assumption can no longer be sustained.” Gerson thinks that once this becomes clear, Holder will be pressured to resign. We’ll see.

Michael O’Hanlon on the McChrystal counterinsurgency plan: “No other detailed plan exists at the province by province and district by district level, so if we are going to keep the current strategy of counterinsurgency and building up Afghan forces, his idea is the most compelling.” But we are, I suspect, going to get something that’s not quite as compelling.

It is my intention to finish the job.” Well, it’s not exactly Churchillian. But maybe he’ll be better next week.

This could get interesting: “A few days after leaked e-mail messages appeared on the Internet, the U.S. Congress may probe whether prominent scientists who are advocates of global warming theories misrepresented the truth about climate change. Sen. James Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican, said on Monday the leaked correspondence suggested researchers ‘cooked the science to make this thing look as if the science was settled, when all the time of course we knew it was not.'”

Marty Peretz wonders if Obama’s “heart is with the hooligans.” Well, it’s not with those imperiled by the hooligans.

You don’t think it’s the ObamaCare, do you? “Republican candidates have extended their lead over Democrats to seven points, their biggest lead since early September, in the latest edition of the Generic Congressional Ballot. The latest Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey shows that 44% would vote for their district’s Republican congressional candidate while 37% would opt for his or her Democratic opponent.”

Well, maybe it is: “As the debate over a health care bill enters a critical stage, a new USA TODAY/Gallup Poll finds Americans inclined to oppose congressional passage of the legislation this year. The survey, taken Friday through Sunday, finds 42% against a bill, 35% in support of it. Despite nearly a year of presidential speeches, congressional hearings and TV ad campaigns by interest groups, more than one in five still doesn’t have a strong opinion. When pressed about how they were leaning, 49% overall said they would urge their member of Congress to vote against a bill; 44% would urge a vote for it.”

From Gallup: “Since the start of his presidency, U.S. President Barack Obama’s approval rating has declined more among non-Hispanic whites than among nonwhites, and now, fewer than 4 in 10 whites approve of the job Obama is doing as president.”

We could always lower taxes or lessen regulatory burdens on employers, I suppose: “Top Federal Reserve officials expect unemployment to remain elevated for years to come, according to new projections released Tuesday, suggesting that the economic recovery will be too gradual to create rapid improvement in the job market.”

Michael Gerson observes Eric Holder’s “embarrassing, but also offensive” Senate appearance and his subsequent interview in which he admitted talking only to his wife and his brother outside government. “When Holder announced his decision, many jumped to his defense, assuming that the Justice Department had made its decision carefully. That assumption can no longer be sustained.” Gerson thinks that once this becomes clear, Holder will be pressured to resign. We’ll see.

Michael O’Hanlon on the McChrystal counterinsurgency plan: “No other detailed plan exists at the province by province and district by district level, so if we are going to keep the current strategy of counterinsurgency and building up Afghan forces, his idea is the most compelling.” But we are, I suspect, going to get something that’s not quite as compelling.

It is my intention to finish the job.” Well, it’s not exactly Churchillian. But maybe he’ll be better next week.

This could get interesting: “A few days after leaked e-mail messages appeared on the Internet, the U.S. Congress may probe whether prominent scientists who are advocates of global warming theories misrepresented the truth about climate change. Sen. James Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican, said on Monday the leaked correspondence suggested researchers ‘cooked the science to make this thing look as if the science was settled, when all the time of course we knew it was not.'”

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