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Using U.S. Leverage to Strengthen Afghan Governance

Analysis of Karzai's Reelection

SOURCE: AP/Fraidoon Pooyaa

A supporter of Afghan President Hamid Karzai dances, as people celebrate Karzai's victory, in Herat, Afghanistan.

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Afghanistan’s Independent Electoral Commission made it official today—it cancelled the second round of the presidential elections after Abdullah Abdullah pulled out of the race yesterday, and declared incumbent President Hamid Karzai the winner. As many senior Obama administration officials have noted, this outcome was not a big surprise—Karzai had a wide lead in the first round of voting and it would have been difficult, but not impossible, for Abdullah Abdullah to close the gap.

What the Obama administration isn’t talking as much about is how it plans to structure the relationship with the new Karzai government moving forward. The Obama administration has rightly been in a holding pattern, waiting to see the results of what has been a messy and mismanaged electoral process. Now the pressure will understandably increase on the Obama administration to outline its revised strategy for the country.

If there’s a silver lining to the messy electoral process, it is that the elections in Afghanistan brought to the forefront the significant challenges of corruption, poor governance, and leadership deficits that exist in Afghanistan.

Now that the election results are official, the Obama administration needs to work with its close NATO allies to set a clear plan aimed at outlining expectations for the Karzai government on fighting corruption, dealing with the drug trafficking, and advancing good governance. Some discussion of this emerged earlier this fall in a mini-policy debate over the draft metrics to measure progress, but that debate has unfortunately faded. Those draft metrics, quite frankly, were underwhelming on many accounts, reading like a vague wish list of things the United States would like to get done.

Vague wish lists won’t cut it, particularly if President Obama is contemplating sending more troops into harm’s way. The policy and political debate in the United States has narrowly and simplistically focused on troop numbers—an important part of the equation, but not the only one. And conservatives have tried to reduce Afghanistan to a question of President Obama’s determination and will, like in David Brooks’ latest article in the New York Times, which takes us back to a time in 2002 to 2005 when conservatives treated national security like a football pep rally.

The missing ingredient from the Afghanistan policy debate has been a clear implementation plan for shaping the Afghan leadership’s strategic calculations and actions. There are numerous documents and plans on paper—such as the 2006 Afghanistan Compact and the 2008 Afghanistan National Development Strategy. What’s been sorely lacking is an actual policy and plan to achieve the goals and implement the ideas laid out in these strategies.

The Obama administration didn’t have a clear implementation plan to accompany the strategy it released last March, and the policy was still very much a work in progress as demonstrated at an event we hosted at the Center for American Progress with Ambassador Richard Holbrooke and his interagency team. Saying that “we’ll know it when we see it” when it comes to achieving progress in Afghanistan is not enough—it’s not enough to convince the American people that more troops and money are worth it, and equally important, it’s not enough to shape Afghan leaders’ calculations and actions, including the reelected Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

As my colleague Caroline Wadhams argued earlier this fall, the question of what to do about Afghanistan is not simply a question of troop levels. And it’s not enough to talk in lofty terms about “smart power,” as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates do. The real test case of what is becoming the emerging Obama doctrine on U.S. national security is found in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and thus far the team has quite frankly not delivered the goods on the significant promise of “smart power.” Doing so would mean having a clear policy implementation plan to shape the calculations and actions of Afghanistan’s leaders.

So when President Obama announces his decision on Afghanistan—quite possibly later this month—he cannot simply talk about the troop levels, as important as that decision is. The Obama administration needs to outline how all of our resources—including our most precious national security asset, our men and women in uniform—will be used effectively to shape the actions of Afghan partners. We had a rudderless policy for eight long years that did not effectively address this question of leverage in Afghanistan. The time has come for President Obama to bring real change to the policy debate on Afghanistan.

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