This is the second of two accounts of thinktank evaluations of the war in Afghanistan. The first was a report from the Brookings Institution on Tuesday. Today, the Heritage Foundation.
The highlight of Thursday’s event at the Heritage Foundation was analyst Marvin Weinbaum’s scathing review of the Afghan elections. Weinbaum, who served as a member of Barack Obama’s advisory task force on Afghanistan, is a former analyst for the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR). His report on the election, where he served as an observer during the vote, contrasted sharply with the happy talk from the administration and from official and semi-official Afghan agencies who presented the vote as an inspiring exercise in democracy.
Weinbaum warned that the election was so grievously flawed that it may serve to further de-legitimize the regime of President Karzai. Turnout was abysmally low, with only about one-third of Afghans going to the polls, and in some districts — especially in the Pashtun-dominated south — perhaps between 5 and 15 percent of people voted, he said. On top of that, Weinbaum said, there is evidence of widespread fraud, and virtually all of the main opposition candidates are charging that the election was rigged. More than a thousand specific complaints have been lodged already, he said, adding that he himself saw properly marked ballots for opposition candidates that had been destroyed and left scattered along a roadside. He suggested that it’s likely that evidence of fraud and vote-rigging will emerge in the coming weeks, helping to convince Afghans that the election was illegitimate.
On election day, Weinbaum noted, there were hundreds of violent attacks on polling places across the country, yet most of them went unreported because the Afghan government had insisted that the media ignore them. Observers, like himself, observed the vote almost entirely in relatively secure areas, whereas problems occurred elsewhere. He suggested that large-scale stuffing of ballot boxes and manipulation of the tallying of votes occurred.
As a result, he said, “Our entire strategy may be at stake here.” Asked Weinbaum: “How can we expect to partner with a government de-legitimized by the very process by which it came to power?” He zinged the Obama administration for having lauded the electoral process, a wrong-headed judgment that will only embarrass the White House when the full details of the rigged nature of the election emerge.
A key point of the Heritage Foundation presenters, including Weinbaum, is that it is critical for the White House to shore up declining political support for the war — which is already opposed by a majority of Americans, who’ve told pollsters the war isn’t worth fighting. So the White House is caught between two bad options: if it continues to gloss over problems like the fraudulent election, it will develop a Vietnam-like credibility gap as the truth becomes clear. But if Obama tells the truth, an American public already soured on a hopeless war against a vaguely defined enemy ten thousand miles away, with rising US casualties and the prospect of spending hundreds of billions of dollars, is very likely to decide that it’s long past time to get out.