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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Mo' voting, mo' problems?

The news yesterday that Afghan President Hamid Karzai has accepted the findings of the Electoral Complaint Commission (ECC) and hold a run-off election between himself and Dr. Abdullah Abdullah on November 7 was greeted positively in many corners. By all accounts, Karzai received the “Johnson treatment” from a host of Western politicians, including John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, and Gordon Brown. So, a run-off is good for Afghanistan, and by extension the United States and its allies, right?

There appear to be four possible outcomes to this decision. The best-case scenario for the United States is Karzai winning the run-off in a clean election that increases his legitimacy and allows the U.S. to continue to prosecute the war in Afghanistan with an ally or at least known commodity. The second best outcome is Abdullah winning a clean election, which would give him legitimacy, but offers a more uncertain outlook for U.S.-Afghan cooperation in fighting insurgents. Those are the two good outcomes, now we get the two far less desirable results. First, Karzai could win another election marred by fraud, leaving him in power as a weak, illegitimate leader at a time the U.S. needs a strong partner to assist in its strategy change under General McChrystal. Finally, in the worst-case scenario, Abdullah wins a tainted election and the U.S. stands at square minus-one. You could debate my rank ordering here, perhaps arguing that Abdullah is not a bad option for the U.S., but clearly the bright line exists between a free and fair election and one that is tainted.

The key probability for U.S. policymakers is the likelihood that the Afghans’ second try at an election will come off better than the first. There are a number of reasons to doubt this will be the case. First, the Afghans will have to scramble to prepare the country to vote in just over two weeks, and hope that the weather cooperates. Of course, considering turnout in round one was merely 30%, wintry conditions are only likely to keep more voters away from the polls. So, the first problem facing the second election is that low voter turnout might sabotage even a free and fair outcome.

The second problem is that telling Karzai, “This time, don’t cheat!” may not have much of an impact. Despite losing one million votes, Karzai still held a commanding lead over Abdullah. This raises the question, if Karzai believed he could win fairly, why would he organize fraud on such a massive scale? The answer is that, like many things in Afghanistan, Karzai may not have complete control, even over his own supporters who stuffed ballot boxes because they believed it would help their candidate. Fraud committed out of loyalty or to curry favor is likely to turn up in the second round, even if Karzai does not orchestrate it. Of course, it may be that all the fraud committed in the first round was sanctioned and organized by Karzai, but if that is the case, we might consider whether he is a good ally.

The final problem involves the images from the press conference yesterday where Karzai announced the run-off election. Succumbing to outside pressure is unlikely to increase Karzai’s bona fides as a nationalist. Even if he wins the election, Karzai may feel the need to exert his independence after this experience or he may be viewed by an increasingly large swath of the population as little more a Western puppet.

The take away point from all of this is that the outcome of a second election is highly uncertain and may be just as bad, or worse, than where we stand today. We are now far beyond Colin Powell’s “Pottery Barn Theory of International Relations” that we now have to “buy” Afghanistan because we broke it. Instead, the situation the U.S. finds itself in is more akin to working at the corporate offices and dealing with a difficult local manager. You have a certain vision for how things should be handled, but the manager has his own interests that may occasionally clash with yours or bring embarrassment on the company (country). Yes, this is the “David Wallace Theory of International Relations,” and it is much trickier than repairing overpriced dinnerware.