Argument

The Election Is the Enemy

The Taliban isn't attacking the Afghan army anymore -- they're trying to blow up the heart of Afghan politics.

When a group of gunmen killed nine people in Kabul's Serena Hotel in late March, the victims included one of the international observers who was supposed to help ensure that this week's presidential vote wasn't marred by widespread fraud. The response was grimly predictable: The National Democratic Institute shuttered its Kabul office and sent its staffers home, while the United Nations pulled some of its technical experts from Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission (IEC). The IEC compound itself was assaulted last weekend by a group of heavily armed Taliban militants. The withdrawal of so many international observers, according to the New York Times, "potentially raises serious questions about the validity of the election." For the Taliban, it seems, the election, not the Afghan National Army, is now the primary target.

During the four-and-a-half years I served as senior advisor to three U.S. special representatives for Afghanistan and Pakistan (2009-2013), one of the most frustrating obstacles to clear thinking about U.S. goals in Afghanistan was the primary definition of our effort as a "war." Discussion of troop numbers often led the agenda, with politics and diplomacy relegated to the end -- and sometimes dropping off entirely. Today, while Afghanistan prepares for its third presidential election this Saturday (April 5), the policy discussion in Washington is again dominated by whether and when Afghanistan will sign a bilateral security agreement (BSA) and, if it does, how many, if any, U.S. and allied troops will remain in Afghanistan after the end of NATO's combat operations in December 2014. Meanwhile, President Barack Obama, frustrated by Afghan President Hamid Karzai's refusal to sign the deal, has told his commanders to prepare for the possible withdrawal of all American forces -- the so-called "zero option."

Lost in the sparring is that the Taliban are not trying to defeat the Afghan army in battle, but instead are aiming straight for the political conditions that enable the security forces to function. They have focused their attacks on targets directly linked to the balloting with the clear goal of driving out international monitors, depressing voter turnout, and reducing the ability of Afghanistan's Independent Electoral Commission to do its job. If the upcoming presidential election does not produce a legitimate successor to Karzai, or if foreign governments and international public opinion see Afghanistan as too flawed for the country to merit further assistance, it will not matter how strong Afghanistan's security forces may be or how many troops Obama will ultimately wish to deploy. Military success and a political solution will be equally difficult.

Despite attacks on international personnel and warnings to voters that they cast ballots at their own risk, the Taliban cannot stop the election. Their killings at the Serena Hotel and the attack against the Independent Election Commission have led most, if not all, international observers to withdraw, but Afghans interviewed by journalists show a defiant determination to participate, and turnout for campaign events remains unprecedented.

Still, even if voters defy the Taliban and turn out in large numbers, the combination of Taliban control over parts of the population, especially in the south and east, with the weakness of Afghanistan's national institutions might delegitimize the outcome. If public opinion in the United States and other donor countries judges the election by unrealistic standards, the assistance needed to sustain Afghanistan's fragile progress could be in danger. Afghanistan is still Asia's poorest country, and it has been at war for 35 years. Once the results come in, Afghans may have to reach an outcome by deal-making and negotiation, not solely by ballot counting. But using flawed electoral results rather than bloodshed as a basis for negotiation would still constitute progress.

Despite their best efforts, the IEC and Afghanistan's Electoral Complaints Commission may not be able to prevent suspected fraud and other uncertainties from calling the vote count into question. If no candidate wins over 50 percent, the constitution requires a runoff between the two top vote-getters. Polls show Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah nearly tied with about 40 percent support each (with a slight lead for Ghani) among those expressing a preference. Zalmai Rassoul, widely seen as Karzai's favored candidate (though Karzai denies having a preference), comes in third with about 12 percent.

Despite skepticism about political polls, which have a limited track record in Afghanistan, any result vastly different from this may lead to claims of fraud. Some in Ghani and Abdullah's camps are already anticipating challenges to votes for Zalmai Rassoul from insecure areas of the South, where there will be little government presence and few if any monitors.

Even if the candidates agree on the result of the first round, meanwhile, the capacity of the system to hold a second round of balloting has never been tested. The IEC may not be able to complete preparations before August, even though Karzai's constitutional term expires on May 22. The time needed for printing and distributing new voting materials and securing polling places will extend through the summer fighting season, which will see a test of strength between the Taliban and the Afghan security forces as the U.S. and NATO forces continue to withdraw.

In addition to the heightened security risks, a second round of voting presents unique political challenges. Given the centralized power of the Afghan presidency in an otherwise weak state, the second round risks turning into a winner-take-all contest between ethnic coalitions. The high stakes could create nearly irresistible incentives for fraud, which even the candidates could not control. Contested votes could exceed any claimed margin of victory, so that the second round, too, would not be decisive.

At issue, after all, will be not only who becomes president, but the structure of the Afghan state itself. While attention in the United States focuses on the shooting war between the Taliban on one side and the Afghan government and the U.S. and NATO-led international coalition on the other, major issues divide the groups that have joined the system. These include the degree of centralization of the state; the balance of power among regional, ethnic, and tribal coalitions; control over the security forces; the role of the former armed resistance; and how all of these will affect the distribution of the diminishing flows of foreign aid.

If disputes drag on for months, the Taliban will claim to have proven that the system of government adopted by Afghans with international support after their ouster from power cannot function. The increasing capacity of the security forces and the extent of their international backing will be irrelevant if they have no legitimate authority to defend.

One factor militates against such a result: All the candidates and their major supporters are part of a coherent political elite, which has formed since the 2001 Bonn Agreement. Despite their disparate origins and the conflicts they have had and still have, they know each other and have worked together for well over a decade. Their televised debates have shown that even if they say different things, they speak a common language. They all want to win, but they know that they all could lose.

Electoral disputes will pose a difficult dilemma for Washington, especially because of what happened in 2009, when Holbrooke's efforts to make the election more competitive appeared to Karzai as an attempt to oust him, heavily politicizing the ballot audit. As one of Holbrooke's advisors on Afghanistan, I never heard him say -- even in private -- that he wanted to defeat Karzai, despite former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates's allegation in his recent memoir that Holbrooke wanted to unseat Karzai as part of what the former defense chief derides as a "clumsy and failed putsch." On my first day in office, April 24, 2009, however, I advised him against U.S. intervention to "level the playing field." Afghanistan's weak institutions, I argued, might not withstand the strain of aggravated contestation. I advised the United States instead to support consensus-building among the candidates, but the administration -- not just Holbrooke -- had already decided on a different policy.

To avoid a repetition of those events, and because of our immediate interest in stability, we might press for a premature compromise that some will see as legitimating fraud. Our longer-term interest in maintaining the coalition supporting the current system, however, may require us to allow these disputes to take their course to assure that no group feels it has lost its stake in the system. It may be better to let the United Nations take the lead in convening the international stakeholders in the election if disputes persist.

The timing for signature of the security arrangements, however, imposes a deadline. Karzai has refused to approve it. All major candidates have said they will sign the BSA, but even a small post-2014 presence will require either a signed agreement by September or a difficult decision to extend the December 2014 deadline.

Confronting these alternatives may force the candidates into negotiation. One obstacle to any deal, however, is that only one person can be president, and the current constitution makes no provision for power sharing to enforce an agreement. International guarantees could help, but these would require support from Afghanistan's neighbors. Iran, which has great influence within the current setup, has a strong interest in the stability of Afghanistan. And even if the election leads to the new president signing the BSA, Tehran still wants the election to succeed. The United States should be prepared to give its diplomats the latitude to engage their Iranian counterparts in Kabul. Meanwhile, in Pakistan, some may see any such crisis as their best opportunity to overturn or restructure an Afghan government that they fear brings Indian influence uncomfortably close to their western border, even if an unsettled Afghanistan strengthens extremists in Pakistan. The United States -- and most important, Pakistan's closest ally, China -- must let Islamabad know that all will suffer from the fallout of a failed election across the border.

Any new Afghan government, with or without a BSA will confront a serious test of strength from the Taliban and their supporters in Pakistan. It will require and merit American support, despite inevitable crises in the electoral process. That test is likely to prove that one thing has not changed: Neither side can eliminate the other. An election result based on a reasonable consensus among the groups committed to it can set the conditions for a political settlement. Despite the temptation to shrug our shoulders and claim partial success after the decimation of the al Qaeda leadership, a more stable Afghanistan could have immensely positive effects in a region where the spheres of influence of China, India, Russia, Iran, and Pakistan meet. Far from being a distraction, peace and stability in Afghanistan is crucial for the pivot to Asia. And that can't be ceded to the Taliban.

WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP/Getty Images

Argument

Reconciliation Means Having to Say You're Sorry

And other lessons Germany can teach Japan, China, and South Korea.

In late March, both Chinese President Xi Jinping and South Korean President Park Geun-hye visited Germany. While trade and investment were the main discussion topics, the remarkably coincidental visits of the two Asian powers are suggestive. In addition to new economic agreements, Germany may be offering something of even greater value to China and to South Korea: reconciliation with Japan.

Germany could help China and South Korea settle their decades-long disputes with Japan over the ownership of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea and over the Takeshima/Dokdo Islands in the East Sea, respectively, as well as other festering tensions over history and memory. The idea, bold as it may sound, arguably originated with China and South Korea, not Germany. Over the last month, Beijing has become outspoken about Germany's successful confrontation of its horrific role in World War II and the Holocaust, highlighting Japan's perceived inaction. China's ambassador in Berlin has compared Germany favorably to Japan, and Beijing reportedly asked Germany to emphasize its handling of the Holocaust during Xi's visit. Park did not discuss the Holocaust directly, but nevertheless argued -- before and during her visit -- that Japan could learn from Germany how to confront its history.

Germany prudently resisted Xi's and Park's overtures, preserving the country's role as a model for post-war reconciliation free of entanglements. Yet there is reason to think Germany may be receptive to serving as a mediator. It comes at a time when top German officials are calling for more engagement with East Asia. And Germany understands better than any other country how to confront complicated historical issues with neighbors and former foes. Germany could convene officials from Japan, China, and South Korea -- which dispute not only sovereignty over rocks and islets, but more so Japan's conduct during World War II -- in a neutral location, perhaps in low-key Bonn, where Germany initiated and developed its foreign policy of reconciliation more than 60 years ago.

There are several lessons that Germany could convey. The first is that reconciliation need not conform to the East Asian ideal. There is a tendency in East Asia to see reconciliation as perfect peace and harmony -- and therefore unattainable -- but Germany's was long, messy, and has not yet ended. Germany has shown a continuous, unyielding commitment to the survival, security, and prosperity of the Jewish state, for example. Nonetheless, since Germany first extended reparations to Israel more than 60 years ago, the two nations have had their share of disagreements and uncertainties, particularly over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Germany's relations with the Arab world, and policy toward Iran.

Second, Germany's reconciliation path shows that resolving territorial disputes need not be a threshold issue to cooling conflict. Before tensions flared in 2010, the Senkaku/Diaoyu question had sat on the shelf for several decades. It could be resolved now, or simply shelved again. The dispute over Takeshima/Dokdo has been recurrent, but a creative solution would be possible. In October 1956, Germany and France settled their dispute over the Saar, the territory of which had switched back and forth between Germany and France, through a referendum in which Saarlanders voted to join Germany. But Germany did not legally recognize Poland's western border until Germany reunified in 1990. And Germany and the Czech Republic still agree to disagree on when the 1938 Munich Agreement, through which Germany annexed the Sudetenland, became invalid -- the day the agreement was signed or the day Adolph Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia. This has legal implications for the Sudeten Germans's citizenship and their ability to file claims for property confiscated by Czechoslovakia after World War II. Despite these disagreements, Germany enjoys deep political and societal partnerships with both Poland and the Czech Republic, which readily accept Germany as the effective leader of Europe. Reconciliation can thus resolve territorial disputes, but they are more easily resolved in broader processes that address historical and emotional issues. Territorial tiffs do not have to prevent more general reconciliation.

Third, Germany could provide key guidance on compensation. Japan insists the issue of war reparations was settled by the 1965 Treaty on Basic Relations with South Korea and the 1972 Joint Communique with China -- and by subsequent economic assistance -- so it has rejected compensation claims from individual Korean and Chinese victims. Seoul and Beijing have highlighted the plight of "comfort women" -- sex slaves for the Imperial Japanese Army -- and forced laborers, who have received either inadequate or no recompense.

The German example demonstrates that both sides can address compensation long after the underlying crimes are committed, and without legal complications preventing resolution. Germany's understanding that compensation is a core element of reconciliation began with its Reparations Agreement with Israel in 1952, continued with domestic compensation and restitution laws for German citizens and former citizens, then extended to other agreements with Western European countries before German unification, and the former Soviet Union and Eastern European countries thereafter. As late as 2000, Germany joined with private companies to compensate forced and slave laborers from World War II, mindful that their numbers were rapidly dwindling. Through it all, when domestic law or international agreements left some victims uncompensated, Germany established special funds and arrangements to rectify the exclusions.

Then there are the apologies. Japan's record is spotty: The 1993 Kono Statement on "comfort women," the 1995 Murayama Statement on Japan's need to learn from history, and the 2005 statement from then-Prime Minister Joichiri Koizumi on Japan's colonial rule and aggression are a good start. But they stand as islands in a sea of denial, not as markers in a consistent effort to face the past. None was followed by robust, concrete action. And later actions have undercut those statements, such as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's April 2013 parsing of whether the term "aggression" should be used to describe Japan's wartime behavior and his December 2013 visit to the Yasukuni Shrine, where among millions of Japanese war dead, 14 convicted war criminals lie enshrined. Some Japanese right-wing politicians have called for Tokyo to revise or rescind the Kono and Murayama apologies. The Abe administration is reviewing the content of the statements, but with angry responses from China and South Korea and other international objections, Abe has resisted domestic pressure to change or dispense with them, at least for now.

Here again, Germany's success can be instructive. As early as September 1951, Germany acknowledged the crimes it had committed during World War II and recognized the suffering of its victims, beginning a process of repeated acknowledgement. Acceptance of the past was not always characterized by formal apologies sanctioned by cabinets or parliaments in advance. Instead, there were often statements of regret, either by individual leaders or in treaties and agreements, from German statesman Willy Brandt's 1970 kneeling at the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising Memorial to the 1997 German-Czech Declaration.

The aggrieved party has usually responded with magnanimity and not forgiveness, often because there was a coordinated bilateral process of statement and calculated reply. For example, then-Chancellor Konrad Adenauer shared a September 1951 statement offering negotiations on compensation to Jews and Israel with Jewish leaders before he delivered it. All the parties could learn from the consistency and breadth of Germany's acknowledgement of its past. Comfort women and their supporters, whose concerns are high on Park's agenda, have demanded formal, official apologies. Acceptance of something more targeted, coming from someone who does not necessarily speak for all of Japan, might at least start a healthy process.

None of this will be easy. Although widely lauded now, Germany's reconciliation was almost always unpopular, both in Germany and in partner countries. Reconciliation requires visionary leaders in public and private spheres -- such as Adenauer, Israeli Prime Minister David Ben Gurion, German President Richard von Weizsäcker, and Czech President Václav Havel -- willing to answer opponents and public opinion courageously and directly. Governments alone cannot produce reconciliation, but they can be instrumental in encouraging and channeling private energies, and responsive to initiatives from civil society that often occupies a moral space so necessary for cooperation after conflict.

It would be simplistic to assume that East Asia does not have or could not produce such leaders; they emerged when needed not only in Germany, but also in its former foes. Chinese, South Korean, and even Japanese practitioners and civil society actors have engaged with Germany to learn about the payment of compensation to victims and the work of bilateral textbook commissions, among other sensitive subjects. And both former Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama and Park have referred explicitly to Franco-German relations as a model for what might be possible in East Asia. Sometimes, acute need forces visionary leaders committed to the future to emerge. In East Asia, that time is now.

JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP/Getty Images