Chief Military Correspondent
On a nearly deserted road in eastern Afghanistan this autumn, I had a brief conversation with an old farmer driving a battered truck perilously overloaded with sacks of onions and melons. He had chuckled when I asked him if he was going to vote in the presidential elections. He touched the soiled turban on his head and squinted through his dirty windshield toward the distant market towns that the Taliban dominate. "There is no point in voting,'' he said. "Karzai will win anyway. You know that. He is your man.''
He is our man indeed. And Hamid Karzai's casual assumption this morning of another five-year term as Afghanistan's president, after the election runoff was canceled when his only opponent pulled out of the race, saddles the Obama administration with a king-size migraine.
The U.S. strategy in Afghanistan has rested on a central goal: building public trust in a strong, democratic central government. Sixty-eight thousand American troops are deployed there in service of that goal. The election process, beginning with a nationwide vote in August, was seen as crucial in demonstrating that democracy works and is worth the hard work and risk-taking required to support it.
Today that idea is a shambles. Now the U.S. strategy rests on an undemocratic, corrupt and weak central government, a president who cheated his way into office in an election held under American supervision, an election that even the government of Afghanistan concedes was stolen. The script couldn't have been improved if Taliban chieftain Mullah Omar had put himself to the task.
Can this get any worse?
What I'm hearing today from some of the U.S. troops in Afghanistan is: uh-oh. They see two immediate effects. For the Taliban, Karzai's assumption of a second presidential term validates their argument that the U.S.-backed government in Kabul is terminally corrupt and must be overthrown; re-energized, they will recruit and fight harder. And many Afghans, whether fence-sitters or earnest new policemen and schoolteachers trying to help build a more modern nation, will lose heart.
Sadly, the fallout of the political machinations in Kabul will land hard on the shoulders of the American soldiers and Marines now deployed in Afghanistan. They are the ones who are training and advising and conducting joint operations with Afghan soldiers and police. And working with local farmers, businessmen and local government officials. They confront petty corruption at every level. Their pitch has been that open, honest government works better. They grind away at corruption every day: a U.S. Army sergeant helps a police district commander fill out a fuel requisition form so the local gas station will be paid by the local government, rather than having the police just take the fuel as a bribe for protection. But it's an uphill battle. "Corruption is a cancer without a cure in Afghanistan,'' said Col. Michael Howard, who commands an infantry brigade in eastern part of the country. "If we don't come up with a cure, it will cause us to fail.'' But with corruption so evident at the top, what is the cure?
If there is a silver lining here, it is the opening created for the Obama administration to shift its focus from creating a strong central government to simply ignoring the capital and focusing on building good governance in Afghanistan's 34 provinces. Strong provincial government seems a better fit with Afghanistan's history and ethnic and tribal divisions. The southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar, for instance, can be comfortably managed with strong Pashtun governments; in the same way, some of the northern provincial governments are already dominated by Tajiks.
Provincial governors are not elected, however; they are appointed by the president. It would take legislation to change this stranglehold of patronage. It seems like a timely idea.