And the winner is…

By Sameer Lalwani

The UN backed commission’s charge of electoral fraud confirmed what most Afghans and observers already knew—that this was a messy election revealing the corruption, fecklessness, and disarray of the government. But the implications are much more strategically disturbing.

In terms of the US and NATO’s counterinsurgency strategy, the best possible outcome they could have hoped for was a sweeping electoral mandate for a single candidate (presumably President Karzai) to avoid the infighting and delays in a runoff and demonstrate to the Afghan people (and the international community) that there was a unified Afghan state ready to return to the business of governance and state development.

Unfortunately, the electoral outcome was the worst of both worlds—a fractured vote mired in illegitimacy amidst allegations of vote-tampering and ballot-stuffing with President Karzai likely barely accumulating over 50% of the vote. Even if Karzai is able to consolidate control by bringing his challengers into his government, it will likely come at the cost of further corruption and ineffectiveness in the government ministries. For instance, the deals Karzai had to make even before the election by bringing in Dostum and Fahim, can already undermine the government’s reputation and centralization efforts.

For an established government, a close election that begets a stable and non-violent transition of power demonstrates the durability of the democracy. But for a nascent and inchoate government that is effectively competing with an insurgency for the loyalty of an uncommitted people, an election that produces such disarray can be devastating. The primary component of a counterinsurgency strategy is to achieve a political solution rather than a military one, aided and abetted by a population- rather than enemy-centric strategy. But to induce a political solution, a strong, centralized state needs to be able to govern effectively to demonstrate the value of political competition within the state rather than violence outside of it. This is especially pressing as the Taliban has begun to set up parallel governance structures.

The face of a hearts and minds campaign is actually the Afghan central government with the US and NATO playing a supporting role. The election was opportunity to prove Afghan leadership to domestic and international audiences and it seems to have failed.

Some of Charles Tilly’s impressive body of work suggests that many states begin as protection rackets that eventually acquires public confidence and legitimacy as they become more effective. But an ineffective government that cannot offer protection from insurgents (due to the weakness of the army) will be seen as just a racket—a predatory state—by the people and by the international community. At that point the unofficial winners of the election will be the Taliban.