Don’t expect any miracles after President Karzai’s decision to accept a second round in the much-disputed Afghan elections. (The latest totals give Karzai 49.7 percent of the vote from the August election, just under the 50 percent needed to avoid a runoff. Earlier, Karzai had claimed 54 percent of the vote.)
First of all, it’s unlikely that a second round of elections will be much fairer, or better run, than the fraud-marred first round. Turnout, which was estimated to be about 30 percent in the August round, may fall further. In Pashtun areas, and in areas where the Taliban is strong, turnout was often 5 percent — or less.
Second, the extreme international pressure on Karzai makes him seem puppet-like, in spite of his defiance. He was called or visited by virtually the entire US government, and British Prime Minister Brown called Karzai three times in three days. Senator Kerry, who traveled to Afghanistan, met repeatedly with Karzai. In deciding to go along with a second round of elections, perhaps Karzai was acceding to the inevitable. But to many Afghans, his decision will look like what it is: a humiliating capitulation to US-UK pressure and intimidation. That can hardly enhance Karzai’s ability to present himself as a credible national leader.
Third, whatever the outcome, the road ahead is extremely difficult. Perhaps Karzai will be reelected, the most likely outcome. Perhaps Karzai and his challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, will strike a deal, either after the election — to form a coalition of sorts — or before it happens, thus making a second round unnecessary. But in either case, the resulting government in Kabul will still be seen by the armed opposition, including the Taliban and its allies, and by the majority of the ethnic Pashtuns as one-sided, representing the interests of the old Northern Alliance, and the ethnic Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara minorities that dominate it.
The path to a passably stable Afghanistan will require a new Afghan national compact, one that results in a rebalanced, power-sharing agreement between the ruling powers in Kabul and the Pashtuns. That, in turn, will mean accommodating the Taliban, or most of it, and winning the support of the Taliban’s backers in Pakistan.
President Karzai has repeatedly declared his willingess to negotiate a deal with the Taliban and to convene a tribal council for reconcilation among Afghanistan’s factions. Once the election crisis is out of the way, it will be critical for the United States and world powers to support Karzai in that direction — making it clear, at the same time, that Karzai may ultimately have to step aside to make it work. That’s the political solution to the war, and it will have to be underwritten by Afghanistan’s neighbors, especially Pakistan, India and Iran, who are all heavily invested in support of Afghanistan’s factions. (Iran, for instance, has strongly backed Abdullah.)
Too often, the Obama administration seems to indicate that they see the emergence of a new Afghan government under Karzai as critical to the counterinsurgency (COIN) policy that the generals are addicted to. But that’s a formula for a Thirty Years’ War. A new Afghan government could indeed kick start a solution there, but only if it’s focused on a diplomatic and political settlement, not an escalated war.