Afghans deserve to make their own mistakes – a note to O’Hanlon

The Washington Post just carried an op-ed by Michael O’Hanlon calling for the US to “pick the winner” in the next Afghan presidential election. That’s right — he’s calling for the US to rig the elections, pick sides, pre-determine the outcome and strip Afghans for the democratic right to choose and the motivation to vote, which they’ve sometimes done at the cost of life and limb.

O’Hanlon doesn’t even pretend to say, even if tangentially and for the sake of political correctness, that the US should not play buzkashi with democracy but should rather protect the integrity of the election, strengthen institutions instead of individuals, nurture the rule of law instead of flouting it.

O’Hanlon is not a Washington nobody — he’s a senior fellow at the prestigious Bookings Institution and an advisor to CIA Director Gen. David Petraeus. That means he has the ear of people inside and outside the government, and his writings are not academic flights-of-fancy.

However, O’Hanlon’s idea not only makes for bad policy aesthetics but is also a dangerous option that displays a naive understanding of Afghan politics that I can only attribute to his attempt to satisfy a Washington audience.

***

For the sake of argument let’s for a second agree with O’Hanlon: America has spent blood and treasure for a decade in Afghanistan, so it should have a say in who gets the job of preserving those gains.

This argument ignores that post-ISAF success in Afghanistan depends not on installing an individual but on the transition, on the stability of the political structure so Afghanistan does not implode — which is likely given the drastically reduced amount of cash and troops and the specter of ethnic fracturing in the ANSF and broader Afghan society.

O’Hanlon is asking the US to stake the success of the withdrawal strategy on the uncertain outcome of a tactical gamble. There is no guarantee an American-installed president will: a. last in office, b. follows America’s directives after coming to power, c. manages the change well, d. handles the neighbors, e. you get the idea.

If, with 100,000 American troops and billions in aid Karzai can defy America, the next president with little troop backing and even less money will most definitely do so too — because they have to survive in Afghanistan’s state-of-nature real politik by making deals. America’s support may be most critical in picking a winner, but it’ll inevitably be less crucial in keeping in him place because the balance of power will have tilted toward local strongmen, tribal leaders and warlords, which the next president will have to inevitably embrace as an insurance against the Taliban.

***

But, for argument’s sake, let’s also grant O’Hanlon the benefit of the doubt and say the next president will be a competent individual who listens to America. Then O’Hanlon has to answer two questions: what will be the criteria for choosing the winner? And who fulfills them?

Says O’Hanlon:

But if the next Afghan president can be an even moderately serious reformer, the most likely outcome will not be pretty but will be better than defeat. [Emphasis added]

O’Hanlon doesn’t at all explain what reforms he wants to see, but he does rattle off a wish-list for the hand-picked dictator-president:

Should such a reformer prevail, the Kabul government will continue its struggle to contain the insurgency in rural locales while absorbing the occasional body blow in populated areas. But it will probably be able to hold onto major cities and transportation routes and keep the nation’s security forces intact.

Roughly two-thirds of Afghanistan’s population lives in rural areas and “population centers” outside major cities. A government that leaves them vulnerable to insurgent attacks has effectively ceded control of most of Afghanistan.

Anyway. Who does O’Hanlon think is “reform-minded” enough and can accomplish the above?

Possible candidates include Hanif Atmar, a former minister of both education and the interior who recently helped start a multi-ethnic political reform movement; economic wizard Ashraf Ghani; and the former foreign minister and presidential runner-up Abdullah Abdullah.

  • Hanif Atmar was a moderately successful interior minister but electorally, he is completely untested. But you don’to have to test him to know that he doesn’t have a popular base or strong tribal/ethnic connections. The motley group he has assembled into an ostensibly centrist party stands no chance in Afghanistan’s politics.
  • Ashraf Ghani is so unelectable that even the Democratic Party campaign whiz James Carville couldn’t change his fortunes in 2009. He’s seen as a Westernized Afghan with no political street cred. He lacks real tribal connections, something that putting on a patu and turban doesn’t change, a major reason why, according to David Sanger’s book, the US didn’t back him in 2009.
  • Abdullah Abdullah was moderately successful in the 2009 election. But after Karzai agreed to a run-off following major arm-twisting from America, Abdullah unexpectedly quit the race, making Karzai president and disappointing his supporters. His 2009 numbers were good largely in the North, indicating he lacks broad-based appeal.
Then again, in all three cases, why would legitimacy or popular appeal matter if you’re picking the winner? It’s not like we’re pretending it’s a democracy anymore.
And nobody blames O’Hanlon for the weak slate of candidates he’s proposed. Afghans themselves — from politicos to analysts — are decrying the lack of a national figure who could rise and unify the country ahead of the elections. So any candidate America chooses will likely suffer from the democratic deficit and inefficacy. And there are other side effects:

The prospect of America choosing the next winner terrifies the ethnic minorities, who suspect the US will choose an ethnic Pashtun who will continue to reach out to the Taliban, a move they oppose. (The US already picked Karzai in 2002 and 2004.) They see this as depriving them of any realistic (or fair!) chance of creating pan-national political parties or creating coalitions, taking away incentives to work within the democratic framework, leaving them little more than the stark choice of using alternative methods of interest articulation.

***

O’Hanlon sells his call for picking the winner by saying there is Afghan demand for it:

Some may wish to avoid interfering in the elections of a sovereign nation, but Afghan reformers are calling out for help. When I visited Afghanistan in May, several suggested to me that the United States pick a winner so they could rally around him.

Yes, some political leaders would love for the US to pick a winner, but they want the candidate to be them — not someone “they could rally around.” If there are “reformers” eagerly clamoring for America to pick a winner, O’Hanlon neither discloses them nor offers any hints as to their identities. But we know this: no serious presidential candidate wants to be passed over, and certainly no Afghan wants to vote at the risk of life and limb in a sham election. Therefore, I don’t know where O’Hanlon found his “reformers” who can’t wait to support America’s next choice for Afghanistan’s president.

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O’Hanlon’s prescription for how to pick a winner is even more outlandish:

…a coordinated message from congressional leaders in both parties, President Obama and Mitt Romney could go a long way.

I have a hard time imagining even a first-semester freshman in American Government class argue that such unanimous consensus would be possible in an election year in the era of the Tea Party where compromise is a taboo, between-the-aisle politicians are an extinct breed and the political chasm is so wide that only the prospect of a sovereign debt default can force the parties to agree (and only barely so). And then there’s the Rohrabacher factor.

And Romney, running as the not-Obama, is doing his darndest best to distinguish himself from the incumbent (and bypass the sticky issue of ‘Obamneycare’). Expecting agreement on this issue that gives him no immediate poll advantage and casts him in the same light as Obama is far-fetched.

But O’Hanlon goes one step beyond:

U.S. diplomats, ideally backed by other foreign missions in Kabul, including such key Muslim states as Turkey, Indonesia and Tanzania…should also be willing to say, publicly if necessary, which candidates would be unacceptable as president.

Firstly, Tanizania does not have a mission in Kabul. Secondly, Indonesia’s and Tanzania’s preferences for the next Afghan president have absolutely no sway in Afghan politics unless it’s backed with resources (read money). And O’Hanlon does not explain how America will get Turkey on board. I don’t see any incentive for Turkey to squander diplomatic capital and effectively help steal an election in a Muslim country by serving as an American accomplice.

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Whether America picks a winner or not, it has the same finite amount of leverage in the form of monetary and military support. Using those resources doesn’t guarantee a positive outcome, but not using them is a guarantee the gains will evaporate. In both scenarios, there are more ways that the plan won’t work than otherwise. Consider:

  1. America picks a president, supports him and the outcome may be positive
  2. America picks a president, supports him, and the outcome is negative
  3. America does not pick a president, still supports him, and the outcome may be positive
  4. America does not pick a president, does not support him (contrary to its interests), and the outcome is negative.

In all four cases, there’s a systemic bias against positive outcomes (things will go wrong and American support is a necessary but not sufficient condition for success). So O’Hanlon is pushing America toward a litany of sub-optimal choices while incurring the added cost of a bad policy aesthetic.

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In short, O’Hanlon is calling for unspecified reforms by imposing nonviable candidates through impractical means in a gamble to the obvious detriment of the nascent, floundering democratic process.

Process that.

He is pushing for a terrible, terrible idea.

And finally, despite my own distaste for geopolitical analogies, I’ll mention this: The last time a superpower “chose a winner” before withdrawing from Afghanistan, the picture wasn’t pretty.

Similar chaos may spread again. Or America can allow the Afghans to make their own potential mistakes in their journey to democratic maturity.

Afghans are as invested in a positive outcome as America, and they’ve sacrificed as much, if not more, than the United States in the past decade for the gains that O’Hanlon boasts about in his article. They must have the opportunity to determine their own president.

Doing anything otherwise will tarnish America’s international image and fuel further disillusionment about democracy among Afghans.

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More:

Read the sequel to this post: 5 things America should do instead of picking the winner

Also:

Read Joshua Foust’s brilliant response to O’Hanlon: CIA Advisor Advocates Meddling in Afghanistan’s Election

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8 responses to “Afghans deserve to make their own mistakes – a note to O’Hanlon

  1. Pingback: 5 things America should do instead of picking the winner – a note to O’Hanlon | Afghanistan Analysis

  2. Michael O'Hanlon

    This is Mike O’Hanlon writing. I agree the United States should not pick a winner–even though many Afghans I have spoken to recently wish we would. The article, perhaps mistitled by the Washington Post, was about how to oppose strongly certain types of candidates–identifying losers, if you will, rather than picking a winner.

    • Mr. O’Hanlon: Thanks for the response. You still haven’t told us who those Afghans are. Once we know their identities we can know their incentives and evaluate how representative their call is of Afghan society. Also, identifying the losers is another way of singling out (read: picking) who the winner should be. It’s still meddling in Afghan politics and still carries all the costs and pitfalls I described in this post.

      I invite you to consider writing a clarifying response. Should you choose to do so, I’d be happy to run it in this blog.

      Thanks,
      Ahmad

  3. But you’re still telling Afghans who the losers are, rather than letting Afghans sort it out for themselves.

  4. Very well-written, Shuja jan – as always.

  5. This is an interesting debate. The gamble of US publicly favaouring a particular candidate or covertly sabotaging others can be be detrimental to legitimacy of future government in the country, as well as to the image of the US. This will particularly haunt the ability of Afghan government in peace negotiations.

    There is a always an acceptable level of mistake by the Afghans that the donors can accept. But the debate on what they are and how the donors can create an enabling environment for the Afghans to make the right decision is really not one that can be discussed in public. I think even indirect references to it in media is not in the interest of democratization process in the country. We need Afghans to have faith in the power of their votes. I agree with Ahmad that this is a politically incorrect discussion.

  6. Pingback: Afghanistan: American-Handpicked President a “Terrible Idea” · Global Voices

  7. Pingback: Washington pundits get it wrong. Again. | Afghanistan Analysis

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