Flawed Logic, Bad Policy Underpin Washington Pundits’ Call to “Pick” the Next Afghan President

Last week, Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post arguing that the US should “pick the winner” in the next Afghan presidential election slated for 2014.

In addition to his job at Brookings, O’Hanlon serves as an external advisor to the CIA director, which makes his policy opinions about Afghanistan especially important and, in this case, scary. I have already registered my opposition to his idea by writing a critique and, as a sequel, a list of five things the US should do instead of pre-determining the next Afghan president.

But now, Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations says Michael O’Hanlon “is absolutely right” to call for the US to “pick the winner” in the next Afghan presidential election.

While I generally agree with some of Boot’s ideas — like his call for more training, equipment and support for Afghan forces — I think his suggestion that the US install the next Afghan leader is wrong for two reasons: 1. it is predicated on faulty reasoning, and 2. it makes for bad, incoherent policy.

Let’s dissect his arguments:

The suggestion that the U.S. should throw its weight behind a presidential candidate in the 2014 election will jar many who view this as antithetical to democracy. It is not. Indeed, nothing will do more to undermine Afghanistan’s democracy than if the U.S. were to stand by and let malign actors such as various warlords, drug traffickers, and Pakistani intelligence agents anoint their favored candidate….

This should be obvious: whenever an outside agent attempts to influence the outcome of an election, it’s antithetical to democracy.  Period. It doesn’t matter if the outside agent is the ISI, drug traffickers or the United States…but especially if it’s the US because with tens of thousands of troops and an immeasurable degree of leverage from aid, money and political and diplomatic clout, it could be the biggest of the bad guys.

(Pro tip: Boot’s case would have been stronger if he hadn’t argued from a value perspective by elevating democracy as a desired outcome/value.)

Says Boot:

With 68,000 troops remaining in Afghanistan even after September, we will have a large say in what happens no matter what. Better to use that influence to try to push for the best candidate possible rather than stand by and let someone transparently dishonest or sectarian take power.

No. If you’re arguing democracy and have 68,000 troops in an environment where malign actors try to influence a democratic process, you don’t abandon your values and join the party. With that amount of resources and influence, you’d avoid contradicting yourself if you mobilized the resources to prevent the bad guys from defiling your value, not join them.

Beyond the value perspective, Boot’s argument is troubling because it sets a flawed policymaking framework: it emphasizes that the US should join the bad guys in their game, not only without regard for larger strategic values but also ignoring the effects of the flawed policy on the ground: The Afghans who’d be disenfranchised, the rule of law that would be trampled, the grave political imbalance (and ethnic friction) it would touch off, the legitimacy it would give the Taliban and their associates to fight another “American stooge” and “puppet,” and the lack of accountability for the US if the gamble went wrong, etc.

And then there’s precedent for the US picking the wrong guy, as Boot acknowledges:

Granted, the U.S. has not had the greatest track record in choosing candidates; Karzai was anointed by the U.S. and our allies at the end of 2001 and, while not as bad as some imagine, he has not been the George Washington, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Lee Kuan Yew, or Konrad Adenauer that Afghanistan desperately needs.

Boot conveniently ignores that the US also picked Karzai in 2004, which is a worse exercise of influence because, unlike 2002 when it was a selection through the seminal Bonn Conference, 2004 was an election. About Boot juxtaposing Karzai with Washington, Ataturk and Yew…I leave the judgment to you.

Boot Goes on:

Is there such a man (or woman) among the current contenders? Perhaps not, but some are obviously better than others, and with a decade of experience in Afghanistan, American diplomats, political leaders, and intelligence operatives have a much broader base of experience upon which to make a judgment about the contenders than they had in 2001.

Unlike O’Hanlon, who gives a few examples of the kinds of candidates the US could pick, Boot avoids the subject and leaves it to the “diplomats, political leaders and intelligence operatives.” But that doesn’t preclude his idea from the problems inherent to the exercise of picking a winner: the lack of a suitable candidate and the prospect of destabilizing Afghan politics to disastrous effect. I wrote about it in my O’Hanlon rebuttal:

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 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.

Boot sums up his argument:

The bottom line is that if we fail to anoint a candidate that will be making a choice too—we will be choosing to let the worst elements in Afghanistan control the electoral process.

In logic class, this would be a fallacy of the non sequitur type; coming from Washington, this qualifies as misleading rhetoric. It erroneously assumes that the only alternative to not “anointing” someone is to sit by and watch the bad guys win. If the US doesn’t “anoint” a candidate — and I posit that it shouldn’t — then it can make another choice: to stand with democracy and protect the choice of the millions of Afghans who would be braving Taliban reprisals to vote.

With the troops, resources, diplomatic clout and political influence, the US could do more.