I waited until Sunday night to post this week’s summary for a reason: it was widely reported on Friday and Saturday that Dr. Abdullah was waiting until today to announce his plans not to participate in next week’s runoff election. He didn’t disappoint. Abdullah withdrew from the election without specifically calling for his supporters to boycott the second round–in fact, he said that the mere fact that the runoff had been scheduled had “helped restore the faith of the people in the process”. So it’s not necessarily the case that the runoff will be a complete farce; the Kabul Council of Scholars, for example, is calling on Afghans to vote in the runoff. Whether the runoff will even be held at all, though, is up to the Independent Electoral Commission.
Abdullah and Karzai had been wrangling all week over the details of the second poll, and it’s hard to tell now how much of that was theatrical. Abdullah, for example, wanted the head of the IEC replaced, which Karzai refused to do. (Abdullah’s complaints are not unfounded: as EurasiaNet reports, the IEC still hasn’t explained its failure to fully follow the recommendations of the Electoral Complaints Commission, as it is required to do by law.) That was just one of several signs that the second election won’t be much cleaner than the first; more polling stations will be open, contrary to the UN’s recommendations, for far fewer poll workers, which may add up to even more fraud.
Both Karzai and Abdullah continue to be very clear on their lack of interest in a coalition government. On the other hand, Abdullah didn’t condemn Karzai with as much vitriol as he could have, suggesting to some analysts that “these guys are ready to negotiate”–but we still have no idea what form those negotiations would take.
The fact that Abdullah’s announcement wasn’t unexpected meant that American officials had a head start on doing damage control. Hillary Clinton put a brave face on the news yesterday, claiming that a boycott wouldn’t delegitimize the runoff–a proposition that Juan Cole, among many others, find laughable. (Across the ocean, Gordon Brown had an even cheerier take, saying that Abdullah had pulled out in the interest of national unity.) John Kerry, whose statements on Afghanistan are always parsed as though he were part of the administration, made positive noises about Karzai’s good intentions. Hawks like Joe Lieberman and John Boehner (who don’t want the election fiasco to dissuade Obama from sending more troops) were quick to note (correctly) that Abdullah’s decision probably reflected the fact that he had almost no chance of winning the runoff. For Duncan Hunter (R-CA), this just means that Karzai can now get down to business: “We need a Karzai who isn’t worried about tribal stuff, or infighting, who is not paying anybody off, who is holding people accountable, fighting corruption, putting the right people in the right jobs.” Sounds easy enough…
Many news outlets paired reports on the dispiriting state of the elections with the story of the first prominent resignation over the war. Says the Washington Post:
A former Marine Corps captain with combat experience in Iraq, Hoh had also served in uniform at the Pentagon, and as a civilian in Iraq and at the State Department. By July, he was the senior U.S. civilian in Zabul province, a Taliban hotbed.
Hoh is very clear about the nature of his protest: it’s about the war’s ends, not its means. He also goes out of way to deny that he’s a “peacenik”, and he agrees that “we have some obligation for [Afghanistan] not to be a bloodbath, so he’s not calling for a precipitous pullout. His main concerns are that our presence in Afghanistan is fueling resentment among Pashtuns, and therefore driving the insurgency, and that the Karzai government isn’t an adequate partner. It sounds like the August elections reinforced his opinions; his resignation came before Abdullah’s announcement.
Hoh’s higher-ups didn’t take his resignation sitting down. Hoh had face-to-face meetings with both Richard Holbrooke and Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, both of whom apparently offered him jobs in an attempt to dissuade him from resigning. A meeting with Biden is apparently also in Hoh’s future. No doubt Holbrooke and Eikenberry realized that skeptics of the war would seize on Hoh’s resignation as proof of the futility of counterinsurgency. The Carnegie Endowment’s Gilles Dorronsoro, for example has a few quibbles with Hoh’s broader strategic points but thinks he’s raising the right questions about the situation on the ground. Spencer Ackerman (not necessarily a war skeptic) also adds that Robert Gates, among others, have previously voiced Hoh’s concern that resentment at our presence is a major driver of the insurgency.
Naturally, counterinsurgency enthusiasts are frustrated that the views of one officer, even a well-respected one, are getting the public attention denied to thousands who disagree. Which is a fair point, but the flip side of this phenomenon, I think, is that–except when they make a splash like Hoh did–skeptics of the war are routinely ignored and marginalized. More gravely, Andrew Exum notes that Hoh was NOT actually a “foreign service officer” as the Post reported. Instead, as a WaPo commenter explains, Hoh was a “3161” State Department employee, “a special category of temporary appointments brought on for 12 month assignments in certain areas of expertise”. That’s not the same as being a career diplomat. It doesn’t invalidate Hoh’s critique, of course, but the magnitude of the resignation should be kept in perspective. At the very least, though, Hoh should shatter the complacency of people like Duncan Hunter, who said this in the same interview I quoted above: “Everybody seems very confident, very excited. Everybody thinks that they can win it, we can win it, we can hand it over to the Afghans, and we can get out of there.” I hope Hoh’s message gives him at least a little pause.
Even if we’re actually close to “handing it over to the Afghans”, in the mean time Western forces are still in Afghanistan and still under assault. Eight U.S. troops died in attacks on armored vehicles in southern Afghanistan on Tuesday; combined with the deaths of eleven servicemen (and several civilians) in two unlinked helicopter crashes on Monday, this made October the deadliest month for American troops in Afghanistan, with 55 fatalities. The violence was felt even outside of the insurgent-riddled South this week, when a two-hour siege at a guesthouse in Kabul left eight dead, five of whom were UN employees. The perpetrators were apparently members of the Haqqani network from Pakistan’s Swat Valley, in cooperation with an Al Qaeda operative, and the attack is widely being interpreted as the Taliban’s first attempt to make good on their promise to disrupt the runoff elections. The attack was accompanied by rocket attacks on the presidential palace and a nearby luxury hotel popular among Western journalists. Afghanistan’s intelligence chief, Amrullah Saleh, said that the “ringleader” of the attack was arrested by Saudi officials on Saturday. Meanwhile, the UN is unhappy with the slow response of the Afghan Police, who only arrived on the scene after the fighting (with UN security guards) was over.