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.
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