I read a piece about the current post-election, and possibly pre-election situation over at the Centre for European Reform's blog, and I put together a comment which I then decided to post here. The essence is that one should be able to tell when it is the Afghan presidency, and not the Afghan president, that one is criticising, but even if this would be possible, it seems to me that not many are trying.
"The last parliamentary elections in 2005 were no democratic dream, either, with around 40 million ballots printed for around 10 million registered voters.
I must say I find it somewhat (but only somewhat) puzzling that there is so much talk of Karzai's faults in the West being the key challenge in Afghanistan. Anybody vaguely familiar with the circumstances can suspect that one can't do too much better as the current president of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. For that one doesn't need to become the devil's advocate, right?
What do I mean? Most development aid is spent going around the Afghan government, not through it, and some of it doesn't really stay in the country even. The salaries of people, such as policemen, who can do the most harm to the government's reputation on the local level, are extremely low, which wouldn't help a corruption-free organisational culture anywhere, not just in a country submerged in violent internal conflicts since the second half of the 1970s as Afghanistan happens to be. Citizens of the state are killed in military operations accidentally here and there, and the government looks powerless in the face of that as well. An insurgency is raging in the countryside that receives its funding from extensive trans-national networks that have penetrated state security sectors in a number of countries in the region, against which the international community never committed the necessary resources - and now, years late, when the international community finally is contemplating doing so, it already feels the fatigue and is questioning whether it is worth even trying. There is also a booming drug trade that you could best conceptualise as a powerful river - one just can't swim against the stream all the time (provided one is really trying). Also, throughout much of his (first?) presidency, Karzai was pushed to act "against the warlords," i.e. important power-brokers who were never DDR'd really, post-2001, and whose support is necessary if one wants to win the next elections.
While the West (or the ECC, the Electoral Complaints Commission, for that matter) cannot afford to endorse ballot-stuffing and fraud in favour of anyone, it is worth constructively considering what one should realistically expect and publicly or privately demand from any Afghan president at any stage. Also taking into account that there are others, not just Western decision-makers, asking all sorts of things in public as well as in private, from him. It's a one-man-show of a polity by the looks of it only.
I'm really not speaking here personally in favour of Hamed Karzai. I have nothing against the other main candidates. Would op-eds speak more sympathetically about them in a year or so, in the West, without major results in weakening the insurgency? Which is something any Afghan president could only partly be responsible for. I'm not sure.
If we accept that some of the weaknesses of the current Afghan government were inherent at creation, this has to have some policy implications. I just can't say what those should be at this point, directly in the wake of these elections. But one would have to return to this topic later, once the dust settles. Which may very well be months away."
I would also add: with a second round of presidential elections, which would cost much treasure and perhaps even blood (of course this may not be a good enough argument against them), would we be aiming at some creative destruction? Engineering a bigger crisis? Is there somebody who thought this through really carefully all the way, with contingency plans for all sorts of possibilities? Besides plans for more big international conferences outside Afghanistan? Because the second round may not be too different from the first round as far as the elections are concerned, and the media would now (rightly) be more critical of all the details. Would a second-round comeback by Abdullah Abdullah and disgrace for Karzai, in relatively fairer competition, be the preferred outcome? But these are free elections, with no outcome set, that would be the point after all.
Update (September 12): MK Bhadrakumar is worth reading for his evaluation of how the U.S. approaches Karzai.