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An Afghan election could mean a U.S. reset with Kabul

On April 5, the people of Afghanistan will go to the polls to select a new president. If this transition from President Hamid Karzai to his successor goes forward uneventfully, it will represent the first democratic transition of power in the country’s history.

As Afghans prepare themselves for new leadership, the United States would be wise to reflect on how it can use the transition to reset its relationship with Kabul and achieve its own policy objectives.

The Obama administration has made political and diplomatic blunders that have hurt its credibility not only with Karzai, but also with the Afghan people. Scholars of democracy and good governance note that stable states are born out of stable institutions and not personalities. The U.S. has an opportunity to turn around its personality-driven relations with Afghanistan in order to increase its leverage in Kabul.

First, it should ratchet down the rhetoric regarding the Bilateral Security Agreement and, by doing so, depersonalize politics with Kabul. Karzai is a lame duck. If all goes as planned, he will be out of power in the weeks after April 5. Instead of recognizing the transition of power that is about to take place, the Obama administration appears to be on autopilot, continuing to empower Karzai by placing the fate of U.S. policy in his hands. By drawing red lines that it has been unwilling to enforce, the U.S. has not only emboldened Karzai, it has also discredited itself in the eyes of many Afghans.

While the logic behind pressuring Karzai is to give the military time to prepare its withdrawal, it makes more sense for the U.S. to negotiate the BSA with Karzai’s successor. The agreement will have more legitimacy in Afghan eyes if it is negotiated with the new government. All major candidates say they support the agreement.

The U.S. can also set things straight with the new Afghan administration by staying out of the upcoming election process. The gulf of mistrust between Karzai and the Obama administration stems from American efforts to bolster Karzai’s rivals in the 2009 presidential elections. This is not paranoia from Karzai, but instead an assertion verified by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

The outcome of the upcoming election is uncertain, but we do know that it will be marred by poor security, resulting in low voter turnout. The Taliban have threatened those who participate. If previous elections are a guide, there will also be widespread corruption on all sides, and Afghans’ ability to participate and monitor these elections will be limited.

Some pundits have already argued that if Zalmai Rassoul emerges as the leading Pashtun candidate over Washington-favorite Ashraf Ghani, it will be due to vote rigging. The fact is that we have no idea if there is a front-runner. Existing polls appear deeply flawed. For example, Tolo TV, a Western-oriented media outlet in Kabul, has supported polls that rely on cellphone sampling in a country that is overwhelmingly rural with limited cellphone access. Without reflection, the media began using these polls to crown candidates as “front-runners.”

The U.S. should prepare itself for a flawed outcome. If it wishes to use its influence, it should be planning for how it might support political mechanisms to bring candidates together should the outcome be widely contested. The outcome will lose its legitimacy if the U.S. is seen to be the kingmaker.

Afghans have a lot to be proud of in terms of the election campaign. Fearing ethnic regional strife, all candidates have tickets that incorporate the diversity of the population. Rhetoric focuses on national unity.

Recently, there was a huge rally for Rassoul in the Pashtun heartland of Kandahar featuring his running mate, vice presidential candidate Habiba Sarabi. Sarabi, a former governor of Bamian Province, could become the first woman to serve as vice president in Afghanistan. Ten years ago, this would have been unthinkable.

The campaign has also featured sophisticated debates on domestic and foreign policy issues. Afghan voters have alternatives to the status quo.

Finally, the U.S. can reset its relationship with Afghanistan by quashing once and for all its efforts to negotiate with the Taliban without the full participation of the Afghan government. The Obama administration’s efforts to work on such a controversial policy issue so openly without the participation or blessing of the Afghan government have further damaged relations with Karzai. They have also undermined U.S. credibility by attracting media attention but producing no results – except a further souring of relations.

The April 5 elections will not be a new beginning, but they provide hope that the blood sacrificed on all sides will not have been in vain.

Jennifer Murtazashvili is a former consultant on Afghanistan with the United Nations and the U.S. Agency for International Development. She is currently a professor at the University of Pittsburgh. This commentary originally appeared at The Mark News (www.themarknews.com).

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 25, 2014, on page 7.

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Summary

On April 5, the people of Afghanistan will go to the polls to select a new president.

The Obama administration has made political and diplomatic blunders that have hurt its credibility not only with Karzai, but also with the Afghan people.

Instead of recognizing the transition of power that is about to take place, the Obama administration appears to be on autopilot, continuing to empower Karzai by placing the fate of U.S. policy in his hands.

The U.S. can also set things straight with the new Afghan administration by staying out of the upcoming election process. The gulf of mistrust between Karzai and the Obama administration stems from American efforts to bolster Karzai's rivals in the 2009 presidential elections.

The U.S. should prepare itself for a flawed outcome.

Finally, the U.S. can reset its relationship with Afghanistan by quashing once and for all its efforts to negotiate with the Taliban without the full participation of the Afghan government. The Obama administration's efforts to work on such a controversial policy issue so openly without the participation or blessing of the Afghan government have further damaged relations with Karzai.


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