Washington Quietly Applauds Leaders in Afghan Election

Though results are still being counted, the biggest vote talliers are favorites of U.S. officials.

Afghan supporters of presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai wave flags bearing his image during an election rally at the Ghazi Stadium in Kabul on April 1, 2014.
National Journal
Michael Hirsh
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Michael Hirsh
April 11, 2014, 6:07 a.m.

With the Afghan pres­id­en­tial vote still be­ing tal­lied, U.S. of­fi­cials aren’t say­ing much pub­licly. They fear that any state­ment per­ceived as an Amer­ic­an en­dorse­ment will sully the lead­ing can­did­ates, rais­ing sus­pi­cions that they are stooges of Wash­ing­ton. That’s a risky pro­spect after more than a dec­ade of of­ten-harsh U.S. oc­cu­pa­tion. But privately seni­or Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials are de­lighted that the main vote get­ters, for now, are con­sidered among the most able and in­ter­na­tion­al­ized of­fi­cials in Afgh­anistan.

Among them is Ashraf Gh­ani, a former fin­ance min­is­ter and World Bank tech­no­crat who is re­spec­ted in­ter­na­tion­ally for his in­tel­lect (he’s among the top 100 “glob­al thinkers,” says For­eign Policy magazine); Ab­dul­lah Ab­dul­lah, a former close friend of le­gendary Afghan free­dom fight­er and U.S. ally Ahmad Shah Mas­soud and a med­ic­al doc­tor with a repu­ta­tion for tough­ness and in­teg­rity; and Za­lmai Ras­soul, who des­pite be­ing seen as an ally of the can­tan­ker­ous and cor­rup­tion-tain­ted out­go­ing pres­id­ent, Ham­id Kar­zai, is also a widely re­spec­ted of­fi­cial with vast in­ter­na­tion­al ex­per­i­ence (like Ab­dul­lah, he is a former for­eign min­is­ter). If the lead­er gets less than 50 per­cent of the vote, a run-off will take place.

All three, but par­tic­u­larly Gh­ani and Ab­dul­lah, have been deeply in­volved in build­ing post-Taliban Afgh­anistan from the start, and both are fer­vent ad­voc­ates of the pending bi­lat­er­al se­cur­ity agree­ment with the United States, which Kar­zai has re­fused to sign. “They were the two people prin­cip­ally re­spons­ible for en­ga­ging the in­ter­na­tion­al com­munity from 2002,” James Dob­bins, Pres­id­ent Obama’s spe­cial rep­res­ent­at­ive for Afgh­anistan and Pakistan, told Na­tion­al Journ­al, while be­ing care­ful to say he was not en­dors­ing any can­did­ate. “They car­ried the full bur­den of in­tro­du­cing Afgh­anistan to world and the world to Afgh­anistan.”

Gh­ani, who ne­go­ti­ated the BSA, de­livered up a soph­ist­ic­ated, con­fid­ent and hope­ful ana­lys­is of Afgh­anistan’s fu­ture in an in­ter­view with Na­tion­al Journ­al last May. He warned that un­less there is a con­sensus among the “polit­ic­al elites” after the elec­tion, it could lead to polit­ic­al chaos and pos­sibly a coup. The key ques­tion after the elect­or­al res­ults, he said, will be “how does the loser ac­know­ledge the win­ner? The le­git­im­acy of the next elec­tion is go­ing to come from the loser.”

All of a sud­den, it ap­pears that he, Ab­dul­lah and Ras­soul may well be the ones who put that pro­pos­i­tion to the test.

Des­pite some sus­pi­cions of fraud, the ap­par­ent pop­ular­ity of Gh­ani, Ab­dul­lah and Ras­soul in a huge turnout marred by sur­pris­ingly little vi­ol­ence may well be the most hope­ful thing to hap­pen in Afgh­anistan since the fall of the Taliban in late 2001. If any of them can form a multi-eth­nic gov­ern­ment, and the Afghan se­cur­ity forces can con­tin­ue to hold the cen­ter against the Taliban, then less rather than more in­ter­na­tion­al as­sist­ance could be re­quired in the years to come — and get Afgh­anistan out of the head­lines, to the re­lief of Wash­ing­ton.

A seni­or ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial said the elec­tion was “head and shoulders” more suc­cess­ful than pre­vi­ous elec­tions in oth­er trouble spots like Haiti, Bos­nia and Kosovo. “Not just in ad­min­is­tra­tion and pre­par­a­tion [of the vote] but the in qual­ity of the turnout, the in­tens­ity of the me­dia cov­er­age, the level of in­terest by the con­stitu­en­cies, the can­did­ates’ travel around the coun­tries, the par­ti­cip­a­tion in ral­lies,” he said. It was also a dis­tinct im­prove­ment over the fraud-marred vote in 2009, when Kar­zai was ac­cused of steal­ing the elec­tion from Ab­dul­lah.

The re­l­at­ive lack of vi­ol­ence un­der­scored a pos­it­ive trend that has been largely drowned out by the hor­ror stor­ies of re­cent vi­ol­ent in­cid­ents, in­clud­ing the slaughter of nine people in a posh hotel in Ka­bul and the shoot­ing of two AP journ­al­ists, one fatally, by a po­lice of­ficer. Des­pite that, a num­ber of ex­perts say, the Afghan se­cur­ity forces are ac­tu­ally be­gin­ning to con­geal as an ef­fect­ive force, and the Taliban have failed to mount tra­di­tion­al at­tacks, hav­ing to re­sort to one-off acts of ter­ror. And those forces are Ab­dul­lah’s pride and joy; it was he who first laid out plans for a new Afghan army in Janu­ary of 2002 to then-De­fense Sec­ret­ary Don­ald Rums­feld and his deputy, Paul Wolfow­itz. But, dis­trac­ted by their am­bi­tions for Ir­aq and un­happy about the idea of “na­tion-build­ing” in Afgh­anistan, they de­murred at first. It re­quired the sur­prise re­turn of the Taliban and to fi­nally pro­voke Wash­ing­ton to ac­tion.

If the se­cur­ity agree­ment is signed, the new gov­ern­ment may have enough fire­power to stand off the Taliban with a re­sid­ual in­ter­na­tion­al force left be­hind after Amer­ica’s planned with­draw­al at the end of the year. Still, Gh­ani wor­ries about the ef­fects of what he called the Amer­ic­an-gen­er­ated “se­cur­ity-de­vel­op­ment­al com­plex” in Afgh­anistan and oth­er coun­tries the U.S. has oc­cu­pied ““ a de­lib­er­ately iron­ic echo of Eis­en­hower’s fam­ous warn­ing against a “mil­it­ary in­dus­tri­al com­plex.” “Every place ex­cept Ja­pan and Ger­many where the U.S. has en­gaged in se­cur­ity as­sist­ance, the mil­it­ary has taken charge,” he said. Gh­ani noted, however, that Afgh­anistan does not have a tra­di­tion of mil­it­ary coups; even the Taliban, in 1992, turned the ad­min­is­tra­tion of the coun­try over to politi­cians.

Per­haps, this time, they will be the right politi­cians.

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