Published on TIME.com:
Little over a week ago, Senator John Kerry was hailed for his diplomatic success in Kabul, where he cajoled President Hamid Karzai into accepting a runoff in the disputed Afghan election. But Sunday’s withdrawal from the race by Karzai’s challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, rendered Kerry’s achievement moot. Moreover, it was an outcome the U.S. had come around to rooting for.
The fact that U.S. officials in Kabul had pivoted within a matter of days from insisting that a runoff be held to pressing for it to be canceled highlighted the problem with the U.S.’s obsession on staging elections in conflict zones. Such elections, though often held up (with the U.S. domestic political audience in mind) as examples of democracy’s triumph, can actually undermine U.S. goals in those situations. Contrary to the Obama Administration’s spin, resolving the dispute over the fraudulent ballots in Afghanistan’s August election was never the key to determining whether to send more U.S. troops into the country. In fact, the runoff election was never going to strengthen the legitimacy of the resulting government; it was always more likely to further weaken it.
(See pictures of the presidential election in Afghanistan.)
Elections typically only resolve a conflict when the major parties to that conflict have accepted the balloting and its ground rules as the basis for a solution. And that was no more the case in Afghanistan today than it was in the U.S. in 1864, when a presidential election was held during the Civil War. Nobody imagined that the electoral contest between President Abraham Lincoln and General George B. McClellan was the country’s primary political battle; nor was the contest between Karzai and Abdullah the key conflict in Afghanistan. Instead, Afghanistan is in the grip of a civil war that pits a U.S.-backed political establishment, which includes both Karzai and Abdullah, against the Taliban.
In that light, the main legitimacy problem with the August vote was not the 1 million–plus fake votes that were cast mostly for Karzai but the 12 million–plus votes claimed by the Taliban. No one actually voted for the Taliban, of course, and its call for a boycott of the poll was enforced by threat of death. But whether out of fear, political choice or sheer indifference, 12 million voters — representing 70% of the electorate, compared with just 30% in 2004 — stayed away from the ballot stations. A runoff election was expected to see an even smaller turnout. Read the rest here