Analysis: Canceled runoff leaves U.S. no worse off – but no better
WASHINGTON — The cancellation of Afghanistan’s runoff election likely won’t make things worse for President Barack Obama as he searches for a path ahead in that country, experts said Monday. But that’s not really good news.
“This is just more evidence of how disastrous things have been there,” said Caroline Wadhams, a policy analyst at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank with close ties to the Obama administration. “Whether or not this election took place, the Obama administration was going to be in an impossible state.”
On Sunday, Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah withdrew from the Nov. 7 runoff election, effectively handing a victory to president Hamid Karzai. Abdullah questioned whether the second election would be fair, after no substantial procedure changes were made following the fraud-ridden summer elections.
In a statement Monday, U.S. Embassy officials congratulated Karzai on “his victory in this historic election.” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., was more blunt in his assessment, calling the election “deeply flawed and filled with uncertainty” but adding that “we now have an outcome and can begin to move forward.”
Abdullah still may join forces with Karzai in a coalition government — U.S. officials have been privately pushing for such an arrangement — but outside analysts say regardless of the result, the tainted elections leave the Afghan government as a weak, questionable partner for international counterterrorism efforts.
“This is the only government we have to work with, so it’s the best we have to work with,” said retired Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, senior advisor at the National Security Network. “We need a viable partner, and it doesn’t appear there are other options.”
Still, White House officials seem content with that limited success for now.
Karzai’s decision to agree to a runoff following the disputed summer elections showed he was open to reform — last month, Obama publicly hailed Karzai’s decision as “an important step forward in ensuring a credible process” and a critical moment in Afghanistan’s democratic development.
“We got most of what we needed with Karzai agreeing to respect the process,” according to Brookings Institution senior fellow Michael O’Hanlon.
And U.S. officials have already begun a new focus on direct work with provincial and tribal leaders as a way to counter weaknesses in the central government. Eaton said that approach could lessen some of the lingering concerns about the election, as local officials take a large role in the counterinsurgency effort.
But critics say that won’t be enough. Jorrit Kamminga, director of policy research at the International Council on Security and Development, said many voters inside Afghanistan saw the second election as a way to rally the public around a legitimate central government.
“Now it’s even worse,” he said. “A smart president would still see that Abdullah Abdullah still has 30 percent of the voters behind him, and find a way to include him in a coalition government. That could help them avoid ethnic tensions. But we still don’t know.”
And Wadhams points out that even a coalition government comes with potential in-fighting and power-sharing problems, although she still sees that as the best alternative available.
“The U.S. and NATO still have to figure out what to do,” she said, “and adding more troops isn’t going to solve this problem.”