Picking a winner in Afghanistan
The stakes are huge. If a warlord or corrupt politician wins the presidency, aid will be wasted and Afghanistan’s economy — still dependent on billions in annual foreign aid, such as that pledged during Sunday’s donor conference in Tokyo — will regress.
Improvements in citizens’ quality of life, such as dramatic increases in life expectancy, school enrolment and cell phone availability, are likely to be squandered. Worse, insurgents will have a rallying cry likely to resonate with millions of disaffected Afghans. Civil war could resume and, with it, control over large parts of the country could be lost to the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
But if the next Afghan president can be an even moderately serious reformer, the most likely outcome will not be pretty but will be better than defeat. Plenty of good leaders are up to the challenge. Possible candidates include Hanif Atmar, a former minister of both education and the interior who recently helped start a multi-ethnic political reform movement; economic wizard Ashraf Ghani; and the former foreign minister and presidential runner-up Abdullah Abdullah.
Should such a reformer prevail, the Kabul government will continue its struggle to contain the insurgency in rural locales while absorbing the occasional body blow in populated areas. But it will probably be able to hold onto major cities and transportation routes and keep the nation’s security forces intact. With the right mix of vice presidents and cabinet leaders, and a sound approach to any peace talks with insurgents, it would also be likely to defuse threats of civil war along ethnic lines.
It is inconceivable that Congress would sustain as many as 20,000 US troops in Afghanistan, at an annual cost of perhaps $25 billion after 2014, and add an additional $3 billion to $5 billion a year in direct security and economic support to the next Afghan government if it is corrupt beyond hope.
No formal or binding promise is possible, given the early stage of the Afghan political process and the looming US elections. Still, a coordinated message from congressional leaders in both parties, President Obama and Mitt Romney could go a long way. Making clear that we will provide much less help to Afghanistan if it chooses poor leaders may seem obvious, but it was clear recently in Kabul that the message has not gotten through. Too many Afghans think that we will desert them unconditionally, as happened before, or, based on an exaggerated sense of their nation’s geo-strategic importance, that we will want to stay forever. We need to re-establish our leverage with clear, credible and consistent messaging from US and international voices.
The next Afghan leader has a chance to restore US faith and to help forge the kind of enduring security partnerships that the United States gradually developed with Greece, Turkey, Jordan, Egypt, South Korea and Taiwan. Afghans must be persuaded to defeat the crooks and warlords who may seek to replace Karzai. Thirteen years of American effort and treasure — and the Afghan people’s ability to escape what has become a generation of war — depend greatly on achieving a sound election process and outcome in 2014. The writer is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
--Courtesy: The Washington Post