Victory for Karzai, minefield for Obama?
Former President George W. Bush used to talk about the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” He was talking about education in the United States.
But these days, that phrase could easily refer to the U.S. government’s attitudes towards Afghanistan. Just look at the following phrases from American officials this year.
“We never promised Afghans a perfect democracy,” “Afghans have lower expectations in terms of security,” “we have to recognise Afghanistan will always remain a poor, conservative land with a low-level insurgency,” “our goal in Afghanistan is simply to prevent al Qaeda using its territory to attack us.”
All perfectly reasonable in many ways, but hardly a compelling manifesto to win Afghan hearts and minds.
The concern is that there has been such a concerted effort to lower the bar in Afghanistan this year, and to downplay what is achievable, that failure sometimes seems almost inevitable.
The United States convinced Hamid Karzai to agree to a run-off election, but failed to convince him to clean up the Election Commission that had perpetrated the fraudulent first round. That made more controversy almost inevitable.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs just declared Karzai the “legitimate leader of Afghanistan” and that the world could take heart that the laws of Afghanistan had prevailed.
Abdullah Abdullah and many Afghans would surely take issue with that bold statement. The laws of Afghanistan do not allow for elections to be rigged and for perpetrators to go unpunished.
Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies argues that the Afghan decision is the “defining test” of Obama’s leadership.
“President Obama will have to take personal responsibility for the outcome of the war in Afghanistan, betting his historical reputation and second term on the outcome,” Cordesman said.
The United States, some experts argue, needs to show a clear and unwavering commitment to winning the war in Afghanistan — and demand a clear and unwavering commitment from the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan to the same goal.
Half-measures will never work. Weakness or a lack of commitment will embolden the worst elements of Karzai’s government, encourage the Pakistanis to keep playing both sides, and be exploited ruthlessly by the Taliban.
It isn’t just a question of how many troops are sent, but whether there is a coherent strategy that will leave Afghanistan standing on its own two feet.
If the war, as Obama once said, is one of “necessity,” then it is surely time for what Cordesman calls “real leadership.”
Much as the president likes to find a middle road, there simply does not seem to be one any more in the Hindu Kush.
What do you think is the best route for Obama to take through this potential minefield?
Photo credit: Reuters/Morteza Nikoubazl (Afghan man dances in celebration of Karzai’s victory), Reuters/Jonathan Ernst (Protest group Code Pink near White House on Halloween)