Mike O’Hanlon is absolutely right to argue that the U.S. needs to nurture a reformist successor to Hamid Karzai as Afghanistan’s president. I made the same point in this Council on Foreign Relations Policy Innovation Memorandum.
The suggestion that the U.S. should throw its weight behind a presidential candidate in the 2014 election will jar many who view this as antithetical to democracy. It is not. Indeed, nothing will do more to undermine Afghanistan’s democracy than if the U.S. were to stand by and let malign actors such as various warlords, drug traffickers, and Pakistani intelligence agents anoint their favored candidate, whoever that is, to succeed Karzai. They will have no compunctions about throwing their weight around; neither should we. With 68,000 troops remaining in Afghanistan even after September, we will have a large say in what happens no matter what. Better to use that influence to try to push for the best candidate possible rather than stand by and let someone transparently dishonest or sectarian take power.
Granted, the U.S. has not had the greatest track record in choosing candidates; Karzai was anointed by the U.S. and our allies at the end of 2001 and, while not as bad as some imagine, he has not been the George Washington, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Lee Kuan Yew, or Konrad Adenauer that Afghanistan desperately needs. Is there such a man (or woman) among the current contenders? Perhaps not, but some are obviously better than others, and with a decade of experience in Afghanistan, American diplomats, political leaders, and intelligence operatives have a much broader base of experience upon which to make a judgment about the contenders than they had in 2001.
The bottom line is that if we fail to anoint a candidate that will be making a choice too—we will be choosing to let the worst elements in Afghanistan control the electoral process. That would be a disaster that would undermine all of the progress our troops have made since 2010.