The Real Winner in Afghanistan's Election

Why the Taliban can’t prevent the monumental success that marks this weekend’s ballot.

We don't know yet who will prevail in Afghanistan's approaching presidential runoff, but we already know the big winner -- the Afghan people. The big loser, of course, is the Taliban and their al Qaeda allies.

The first-round voting generated widespread excitement and high turnout, reflecting Afghans' desire to choose their own leader, and launched two experienced, pro-Western technocrats into the runoff. And despite the chorus of complaints that America is abandoning Afghanistan, the vote caps a five-year turnaround, when the U.S.-led "surge" of military and development aid salvaged a situation trending towards defeat. 

Today Afghanistan is becoming able to defend and develop itself; it is not the basket case ill-informed reports suggest. Indeed, as security concerns fade, the inward focus on economic and social challenges reveals the growing normalization of Afghan politics. The main threat it faces now comes, ironically, from the international community, where patience is wearing thin and pressures for a too-rapid drawdown of support could turn impending success into failure. 

Nearly 7 million Afghans defied Taliban threats by voting in the initial balloting on April 5 -- a 58 percent turnout, higher than that in many U.S. elections. Fully 96 percent of likely voters told pollsters that they felt electing their own leader was very important for Afghanistan -- a degree of unanimity rare in polls anywhere.

The election results, largely free of the fraud that marred the last vote in 2009, advanced two well-educated, staunchly pro-American figures to the runoff. The front-runner, Abdullah Abdullah, is a medical doctor who served as foreign minister under outgoing President Hamid Karzai. His rival, Ashraf Ghani, a Columbia-trained anthropologist and ex-finance minister, literally wrote the book on Fixing Failed States at a Washington think tank. It's hard to imagine better leaders to build on their country's recent progress. (The latest poll puts the race between them at a dead heat; the outcome is likely to turn on who can better mobilize his supporters.)

Outside Afghanistan, few appreciate how dramatically its mood has changed since the surge began in 2009. In January of that year, after four years of spreading Taliban insurgency, Afghans split evenly on whether or not their country was moving in the right direction. By December 2013, in an unpublished poll by the same research group, 58 percent said it was headed in the right direction, while just 25 percent said the reverse. (In comparison, here in the United States, only 27 percent said our country was headed in the right direction in April's NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.)

Security, which had deteriorated before the surge, also improved after American and Afghan forces grew in numbers and improved their tactics. Today, more than 370,000 Afghan police and troops have complete responsibility for their nation's security. While imperfect, they do a more-than-respectable job in a country that has never known fair policing or an effective national army.  

The Taliban's impotence was obvious during the first round of this year's elections, which they had promised to violently disrupt -- and failed to. Their inability to engage in large-scale disruption was underlined last week by a desperate attempt to abort the runoff by killing Abdullah in a suicide bombing, which left the candidate unharmed in his armored car but killed a dozen passersby and bodyguards.

This failure is also echoed in the 90 percent drop in coalition casualties since 2010 and the rise in attacks on "soft targets" by frustrated insurgents. The Taliban may be a continuing problem, but they do not seriously threaten a military takeover of the country.

Afghans noticed the change: In the Dec. 2013 polling, nearly two-thirds rated local security as good. In fact, security no longer tops their concerns. Rather, the leading issues are the economy, infrastructure, and corruption -- as in other poor South Asian countries.

But even on these issues, things are looking up. Better security has helped strengthen the Afghan economy, as the circulation of goods and people becomes safer. Though Afghanistan remains one of the world's poorest countries, its GDP has doubled since 2008. This growth has measurably improved Afghans' lives, too: Seven in 10 feel that they are better off today than five years ago. 

With these gains, the Afghan government has consolidated popular support, while the Taliban are politically at bay. President Karzai's favorability rating is 77 percent -- a figure President Obama can only envy -- and the two runoff contenders' numbers are nearly as good. Meanwhile, sympathy for the armed opposition slumped by half between 2009 and 2011 to under three in 10, and remains low. 

There are two keys to maintaining Afghanistan's security. One is the importance of continuing funding for Afghan security forces, a cost shared by the 50-nation coalition and a small fraction of the sums spent in the past decade. The other is the presence of around 15,000 U.S. and coalition troops for logistical, training, medical, and intelligence support, as President Obama recently proposed. This, too, is a fraction of the peak strength of 150,000 coalition troops a few years ago.  

Beyond security, Afghanistan needs development, and development agencies have ambitious post-2014 plans. These include leadership programs for women to protect their post-Taliban gains, training for legislators, and support for potentially competitive exports (rugs, fruit, and so on).

Such efforts will help offset the economic effects of a shrinking foreign military footprint. So, too, over time, will the development of over $1 trillion in gold, copper, rare earth, and other recently discovered mineral reserves, which offers a potential path to prosperity. 

The Taliban can win only if the United States abandons Afghanistan, slashing residual U.S. forces, cutting funds for Afghan security forces, or neglecting development aid. If that happens, and a fundamentalist regime and safe haven for al Qaeda terror return to Afghanistan, the big losers may not just be the Afghans -- but Americans, too. 



Necessary Roughness

Enough with Obama's "don't do stupid sh*t" policy. Only U.S. airstrikes can save Iraq from collapse.

The dramatic events in Iraq -- with the al Qaeda in Iraq offshoot, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), driving Iraqi government security forces out of Mosul, Iraq's second city, then rampaging down toward Baghdad -- present as great a challenge to the international order as the seizure of Crimea two months ago. One can only imagine how U.S. veterans feel about their Iraqi allies allowing areas that Americans secured with their blood fall into the hands of our worst enemies. The United States needs with utmost urgency to respond and the Obama administration needs to reset its foreign policy for a world that doesn't respond kindly to a "don't do stupid sh*t" approach to diplomacy.

The ISIS challenge to the Iraqi state is far greater than the capture of Fallujah by that movement five months ago. ISIS has an extraordinary ability to maneuver effectively, using combined arms tactics involving snipers, suicide bombers, heavy infantry weapons, and personnel seasoned in the Syrian fighting to overwhelm Iraqi security forces far superior in numbers and equipment. The rout in Mosul illustrated the sorry state of the Iraqi forces: badly led, ill-trained, poorly motivated. The fault for this lies squarely in the arms of the Iraqi government. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki pushed, even before U.S. forces left, to replace competent generals with desk warriors valued solely for their loyalty to him. Combat units were purged of Sunni Arabs and Kurds, and the resulting overwhelmingly Shiite troops were allowed -- for example, in Mosul in 2010 -- to parade their pro-Maliki election posters and Shiite banners honoring the sect's heroes Hussein and Ali.

In Sunni areas such as Mosul or Fallujah, these troops were seen as occupiers, not saviors.

But the Maliki government didn't stop at politicizing the military: It oppressed the Sunni Arab minority in other ways, while picking unnecessary fights over autonomy and oil exports with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Legal action against Sunni vice president Tariq al-Hashimi in 2011, and far more serious charges against Sunni Finance Minister Rafi al-Issawi a year ago, mixed with brutal repression of "protest tent camps" in Sunni areas, all contributed to an estranged Sunni Arab population. That said, Sunnis have not generally favored ISIS's extremist agenda (almost half a million Mosul residents, mainly Sunni Arabs, have fled the ISIS invasion, into Kurdistan). The pattern of repression by what was seen as a Shiite government and army eroded the natural loyalty Sunni Arab as well as other Iraqi citizens have for their state.

Finally, the decision by Maliki's party (and, to be fair, supported by most others), to deny any residual American military force after 2011 undercut American efforts to provide counterterrorism support, a U.S. air presence, training of Iraqi ground combat units, and high-level Washington attention, all of which could have been crucial in stopping ISIS. Thus, while it is impossible to imagine the explosive rise of ISIS without factoring in the anarchic Syrian civil war, mistakes by Baghdad and Washington surely contributed to today's disaster.

Now we have the nightmare scenario. ISIS is now marching towards Baghdad. Its defining strategy is to establish a Sunni religious state, while waging a total war against the region's Shiite population. It is difficult to imagine this Middle Eastern blitzkrieg seizing largely Shiite Baghdad, with a population several times that of Mosul. The KRG and central government forces will fight much harder in their own ethnic/religious territory than in Sunni areas, as we saw this week with the Kurds establishing control over Kirkuk. ISIS cannot seize the whole country. But it is difficult to see the regular Iraqi Army regaining territory in the Sunni areas, absent new military -- and perhaps national -- leadership, and without tough training, better equipment, and large-scale air support, now largely lacking.

While a Sunni Arab Islamist movement thus cannot conquer a much larger Kurdish/Shiite area, what ISIS can do is destabilize the entire country by besieging Baghdad and cutting off essential services and revenue streams, beginning with the Baiji refinery to the north.

Stopping this jihadist offensive should be, but is not yet, a key Obama administration priority. The president's own words undergird this fact. In September 2013, before the U.N. General Assembly, the president listed four criteria in the Middle East that would affect vital U.S. interests and which he would be prepared to use military action to defend against. Three are directly relevant to the struggle underway in Iraq: 1) supporting allies and partners who confront external aggression (in this case not just Iraq but NATO ally Turkey, and close partners Israel and Jordan); 2) defending the free flow of energy to the world (according to the International Energy Agency, Iraq has the potential to produce 6 million-plus barrels of oil daily); and 3) combating terrorism (ISIS is now the biggest al Qaeda affiliate).

The 11-year American effort over two administrations to create a unified Iraq built on Western constitutional and political values is hanging by a thread. Washington's understandable inclination will be likely be more of the same: for the umpteenth time, seek to reconcile Iraq's three major ethnic/religious groups; encourage Prime Minister Maliki to reach out to tribes and seek conciliatory efforts with Sunnis; and rush in some helicopters and other equipment.

But we are beyond that, and years of effort with far more resources than now could not sustain our goals.

Rather, we face a dramatic shakeup in Iraq and the region whose import could equal epoch-changing events in the Middle East such as Israel's 1967 victory and the Iranian Islamic Revolution. Three major developments loom: First, and most obviously, ISIS's effort to besiege Baghdad, which has the potential for enormous loss of life. Second, a possible Kurdish bid for de facto autonomy, as the central government's obvious failure threatens the Kurds' hard-won prosperity. Third, an Iranian move to secure the Shiite south, including the holy shrines at Kabala and Najaf and oil fields, and reinforce the Iraqi Army. (A Turkish response, especially given the seizure of a large consular staff in Mosul by ISIS, can be expected, followed by reactions from Jordan and the Gulf states.)

In this brew, and with time of the essence, the only game-changing U.S. move would be an air campaign against ISIS of the magnitude of that used against Muammar al-Qaddafi's forces in Libya in 2011. ISIS operates more as a conventional motorized formation than an urban insurgency, and air power could be very effective in countering it. Given the unsettled situation throughout the country, the United States probably would have to use bases in Kurdistan, Jordan, Kuwait, and/or Turkey. This is of course a dramatic course of action, without guarantee of success, and at best would only buy time for the uncertain struggle to retake Sunni Iraq (and eventually parts of Syria).

But the alternative is worse: the whole world watching as an American partner and its U.S.-equipped army collapses, and while ISIS and Iran win. The international security system we have anchored, in President Obama's words last September, "for nearly seven decades," cannot withstand many more scenes like this. And the White House, afraid of doing stupid sh*t, cannot sit on its hands.