March 20, 2014
Resetting Afghanistan
By Jennifer Murtazashvili
Professor, Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of Pittsburgh

General elections are set to take place in Afghanistan as international troops continue to withdraw from the embattled nation. Former USAID Democracy and Governance Officer Jennifer Murtazashvili, an expert on Central Asia, argues that the United States can still influence events to make sure that its efforts there have not been in vain.

On April 5, the people of Afghanistan will go to the polls to select a new president. If this transition of power 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 this transition to reset its relationship with Kabul to ensure America can achieve its own policy objectives.

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

President Karzai is a lame duck. If all goes as planned, he will be out of power in the weeks after April 5.

First, the United States should ratchet down the rhetoric regarding the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) and, by doing so, depersonalize politics with Kabul. President 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 President Karzai by placing the fate of U.S. foreign policy in his hands. By drawing red lines that it has been unwilling to observe, the United States has not only emboldened Karzai, but has also discredited itself in the eyes of many Afghans.

While the logic behind pressuring Karzai is to give the military time to figure out its plans, it makes more strategic sense for the United States to negotiate the BSA with Karzai’s successor. The agreement will have more legitimacy in the eyes of the Afghan public if it is negotiated with the new government. All major candidates have said they support the agreement.

The United States 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 the Obama administration’s efforts to bolster Karzai’s rivals in the 2009 presidential elections. This is not paranoia on the part of Karzai, but instead an assertion verified by former Secretary of Defense 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 the result of vote rigging. The fact of the matter is that we have no idea if there is a front-runner in these elections. 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 access to cellphones. Without reflection, the media began using these polls to crown candidates as “front-runners.”

Fearing ethnic regional strife, all candidates have tickets that incorpor- ate the diversity of the popula- tion.

The United States should prepare itself for a flawed outcome. If it wishes to use its influence in Afghanistan, 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 United States 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.

This past weekend, there was a huge rally for Zalmai Rassoul in the Pashtun heartland of Kandahar featuring his running mate, vice-presidential candidate Habiba Sarabi. Sarabi, former governor of Bamian Province, could soon 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 real alternatives to the status quo.

Finally, the United States 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 in Afghanistan, as they have attracted quick media attention but produced no results – except further souring of relations.

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

Jennifer MurtazashviliJennifer Murtazashvili is a former consultant on Afghanistan with the United Nations and the US Agency for International Development. She is currently a professor at the University of Pittsburgh.