President Obama announced yesterday that the U.S. will keep 9,800 troops in Afghanistan until 2016. Combat operations will technically end at the end of this year. The plan depends on the Afghan government being willing to sign a joint security agreement with the United States. Current President Hamid Karzai has refused to sign the deal, but both the contenders in the upcoming Afghan presidential elections say they will.
The news highlights a number of rather remarkable facts: that Karzai, a dominant force in Afghan and international politics for more than a decade, is about to leave office, that we’re not entirely sure who’s going to replace him, and that while both of the potential replacements have cordial relations with him, neither appears to be a total puppet and in fact they have very different views on one of the most pressing issues facing the country.
It may sound like I’m damning with faint praise, but a transition like this has never happened before in Afghanistan.
Afghans voted in the first round of the election on April 5 and will vote again in a runoff on June 14. The runoff pits former foreign minister-turned-opposition leader Abdullah Abdullah against ex-World Bank economist Ashraf Ghani. Abdullah led the first round of voting by 14 points, but Ghani is expected to pick up some Pashtun votes. Abdullah, though half-Pashtun, is generally thought of as Tajik.
It would be an exaggeration to say the election has gone smoothly. The election commission has fired 3,000 people over allegations of fraud, there were dozens of reports of bombings and Taliban attacks on election day, ugly ethnic rhetoric and threats of violence have been heard, and amid security concerns following attacks in Kabul, the number of foreign observers was way down this year.
It’s also clear that president or not, Karzai is not planning to go quietly into the night and will retain some influence through ministers loyal to him, though Zalmai Rassoul, the candidate who was widely seen as enjoying Karzai’s backing, did not make it to the second round.
But the election is still a marked improvement over the last election in 2009, when fraud was so widespread and blatant, with turnout over 100 percent in some regions, that it drastically undermined the credibility of Karzai’s government and handed a major propaganda victory to the Taliban.
Sarah Chayes of the Carnegie Endowment says the notion that this election will be a transformative event is “delusional,” and she’s likely right. Whoever’s in power, Afghanistan faces steep challenges to maintain any semblance of stability after U.S. troops leave. No thanks to the U.S., corruption remains rampant. And the country's experience with electoral democracy could still turn out to be a very short one.
But all the same, if Afghanistan's first ever peaceful transfer of power continues to go smoothly, it will be a pretty remarkable development. And the fact that we all seem to be taking it for granted is also worthy of note.