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Governing Afghanistan

Author: Robert McMahon, Managing Editor
August 17, 2009


Campaigning for Afghanistan's presidential election is in its final crescendo ahead of the August 20 vote, with citizens just witnessing the unusual spectacle of a nationally televised debate that featured sharp criticism (RFE/RL) of incumbent Hamid Karzai. Yet whether Karzai retains power, analysis from Western sources is centering on the need for international forces to keep a robust military presence in the country to bolster what has been a shaky nation-building exercise for the past eight years.

A Financial Times editorial today puts the situation in stark terms, saying the Taliban looks to be able to keep the conflict going "almost indefinitely, financed by the narcotics trade and reliance on the ambivalence and fear of the population." The editorial continues: "[NATO] will never commit enough troops to defeat the Taliban militarily. But it needs to show the determination and staying power to split the insurgents and make power-sharing attractive to their more biddable elements. As the cost in lives and resources mounts, the allies also need to craft a coherent message to sell at home. They have yet to find one."

Fred Kagan, a member of Gen. Stanley McChrystal's Initial Assessment Group, writes in a Washington Post op-ed that the United States must send more troops to Afghanistan if the military operation there is to be effective. "Afghanistan is significantly larger and more populous than Iraq, for example," Kagan writes. "Its compartmentalized terrain hinders the movement of forces and resources. The fragmented nature of Afghan society keeps 'ink spots' of security success from spreading. The enemy's attacks are not as spectacular as they were in Iraq, but its operations are sophisticated and effective."

CFR's Stephen Biddle, also part of McChrystal's panel, said in a recent interview that victory in Afghanistan will be dependent on improving Kabul's governing capabilities.

President Barack Obama is scheduled to make an appeal for U.S. support for the war in an address today to a military veterans group in Phoenix. Reuters reports that Obama is expected to spell out how his new policy in the country is working. A new report to the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee says the administration will need to engage the public in an ongoing campaign to outline why victory in Afghanistan is essential and what kind of resources will be necessary.

The report states (PDF): "Unlike Iraq, Afghanistan is not a reconstruction project--it is a construction project, starting almost from scratch in a country that will probably remain poverty-stricken no matter how much the U.S. and the international community accomplish in the coming years."

Additional Analysis:

The New York Times says the Taliban campaign to disrupt the elections may hurt Karzai.

The Wall Street Journal looks at Karzai's failure to complete the construction of the so-called ring road, a highway meant to connect Afghanistan's cities. U.S. officials in the country say the Afghan government must be able to show it can "have a road network and can keep it open."


Foreign Policy profiles the main presidential candidates in Afghanistan.

The BBC has a Q&A on the Afghan vote.

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