If there was ever a week where events conspired to push Afghanistan out of the headlines, this was it. First the Fort Hood tragedy, and then Saturday’s health care vote, occupied our political media this week, sidelining the aftermath of Dr. Abdullah’s withdrawal from the runoff election.
After deliberating briefly, the Independent Electoral Commission cancelled the second vote and declared Hamid Karzai president-elect on Monday, the day after Abdullah’s announcement. The Post describes the “collective sigh of relief” in Kabul, accompanied by “celebratory text messages” and honking horns, as it became clear that the country wouldn’t be subjected to a second round of polls.
President Obama was quick to make hay out of the announcement, using his congratulatory phone call to Karzai to deliver a lecture on the importance of cracking down on corruption. Karzai, of course, has been making eager noises about doing so, but has been unwilling to get specific. His victory press conference was heavy on references to corruption, but check out this quote: “These problems cannot be solved by changing high-ranking officials. We’ll review the laws and see what problems are in the law, and we will draft some new laws.” That hardly sounds like the zeal of a reformer. And when U.N. envoy Kai Eide called for an end to the “culture of impunity” at a press conference, the Afghan Foreign Ministry issued a stern statement equating Eide’s words with “issuing instructions concerning the composition of Afghan government”, which they termed a violation of sovereignty.
What Obama and his allies want, as one European diplomat said, is “a couple of high-profile heads on a platter”. (One of those “heads”, that of Mohammed Qasim Fahim, was flanking Karzai during his press conference. Another, that of Abdul Rashid Dostum, arrived in Afghanistan for unexplained reasons on Monday night.) Admiral Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wants to see some prosecutions of corrupt officials, and Gordon Brown hit basically the same notes in a speech on Friday, claiming that he wouldn’t put British troops “in harm’s way for a government that does not stand up against corruption”. To give Karzai a nudge in the right direction, the U.S. and its allies are drafting a “compact” for Afghanistan, according to McClatchy, that lays out some of the specific reforms they’d like Karzai to implement, such as ceding more authority to the provinces.
Whatever is going on in private, the American government’s public response to the election debacle continues to be inconsistent and occasionally farcical. Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, for example, twisted himself in knots denying that the Afghan government has a legitimacy problem. Hillary Clinton became the latest American official to hedge her bets by speaking of the U.S.’ desire to have a partner “not just in the president” but in local Afghan government as well; Spencer Ackerman thinks this reflects the influence of counterinsurgency advocates like John Nagl and Richard Fontaine, who have argued that the Obama administration should focus development efforts at the local level to bypass the Kabul morass.
The days of buying time for a strategy review may be coming to an end. Foreign Policy’s Josh Rogin reports that Richard Holbrooke, et al., are rearranging their schedules to accommodate the rollout, and that “certain embassy representatives” in Washington are to be consulted about the review’s results shortly. McClatchy claims that Obama’s decision will be for 34,000 more troops in Afghanistan, arriving starting next March; according to the Times, the administration has settled on three possible scenarios, with ~34,000 representing the middle option, 40,000 the high ened, and 20-25,000 the minimum. (For what it’s worth, on InTrade, you can get 15:1 odds in favor of a 10,000+ increase being announced before December 31.)
It looks like prospects for a coalition government are dim, as Abdullah’s stance against participating in the government isn’t showing signs of softening. In Abdullah’s first media appearance since withdrawing, he sniped at Karzai’s legitimacy and criticized the IEC for cancelling the runoff, a decision he called “illegal”. He sounds more like an opposition leader than a potential coalition partner, and Steve Coll of the New America Foundation suggests that this is precisely how he wants to be seen in the West: a statesman who can “remain a viable figure in post-Karzai Afghanistan” rather than a “confirmed election loser”. This way, Abdullah has a stronger hand to play when he negotiates for reform–as he puts it, he’ll “act like a pressure group“. Wali Massoud, brother of Ahmad Shah Massoud and an Abdullah supporter, sounds downright happy with the situation: “”We are a force to be reckoned with for any government in this country.”
One Abdullah supporter who seems less enthused about the present situation is Balkh governor Atta Mohammed Noor, who seems determined to make himself the public face of discontentment with Karzai. Writing at the Asia Times, Indian diplomat M K Bhadrakumar argues that Noor’s real issue is with Abdul Rashid Dostum, not Karzai, and that Turkey could make use of its good offices to relax the tension between the two warlords. Nevertheless, Noor is still clamoring for Karzai supporters to be given some number of posts in the new government and making ominous remarks like this: “We do not want to use violence to further our demands — but the people have the right to defend themselves if democratic norms are violated.” So far, however, clashes between Karzai’s supporters and his opponents hae mostly been verbal–like the tiff that shut down the Wolesi Jirga on Thursday, complete with MPs issuing “threats of beating”, according to Pajhwok.
Election fallout aside, two other developments from the past week bear reporting, and both (unsurprisingly) make the task in Afghanistan more coplicated for the U.S. and its allies. First, the U.N. is temporarily removing 600 foreign workers from Afghanistan in the wake of last week’s attack on the guest house that killed several employees. That represents about half of the U.N.’s foreign staff in Kabul, and the fact that the U.N. is establishing an Afghanistan office in Dubai suggests that not all of those people will be returning. Ban Ki-Moon wants $75 million to beef up security in Kabul, possibly for the creation of a fortified compound. As the Center for American Progress’ Brian Katulis points out, this will drastically complicate the “civilian surge” that may or may not be happening, especially since it sends the signal that civilians are the weak underbelly of the international presence in Afghanistan.
The second development is the killing of five British soldiers by a “rogue” Afghan policeman at a checkpoint in Helmand on Wednesday. IWPR investigates his motivations here (note that the Taliban have not claimed responsibility), as well as the reaction of Afghan police and Helmandis to the incident. The shooting made this the deadliest year for British troops since 1982 (Falkland Islands war), and sent shockwaves through the British press at a time when the U.K. is already fairly confused about the nature of its mission in Afghanistan. A former Foreign Office minister responsible for Afghanistan, Kim Howells, called for a pullout from Afghanistan this week and used the incident to cast doubt on the success of the British training mission in Helmand.