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Legitimacy Questions in Afghanistan

Author: Robert McMahon, Editor
November 2, 2009

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Afghanistan's planned November 7 presidential runoff was supposed to help confer more legitimacy to a†marred presidential election on August 20, and its assumed winner, incumbent Hamid Karzai. But with the withdrawal of chief opponent Abdullah Abdullah and Karzai now declared the winner, the Afghan government's credibility as a U.S. partner could be under a lengthening shadow. Much analysis is focusing on how Karzai can muster legitimacy, and the extent to which that matters. The circumstances of the runoff, many analysts point out, had already heightened the challenges for U.S. President Barack Obama as he prepares to decide soon on a military strategy that could involve an influx of tens of thousands more U.S. troops to Afghanistan. The New York Times' David Sanger writes today that even Obama's most modest aims in Afghanistan "require a legitimate government in Kabul, one with the authority to manage the army and to rebuild an incompetent and corrupt police force. It also needs the ability to install competent governors and spend Western aid effectively."

Even before the latest turn of events, there were numerous suggestions from Western analysts on how to proceed with a presumed Karzai government. Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution said in addition to attacking corruption, Karzai needs to demonstrate less favoritism to his fellow Durrani tribesman, "fire a few of the worst apples from his national and regional governments, and spread the benefits of the country's wealth (or more accurately, the international aid effort) more evenly to include more of the Ghilzai tribe (the core of the Taliban)."

CFR Senior Fellow Daniel Markey, just returned from the region, says U.S. officials he spoke with will aim to expand relations beyond Karzai to local level officials, such as governors and provincial leader, to "find people that we can work with and offer them incentives and assistance, and also use coercive measures to try to improve their capacity for governance."†Another CFR senior fellow, Max Boot, participating in an October 30 media call with Markey, agrees on the need to stress improving governance but doesn't think the weakness of the current Afghan government is grounds for reducing U.S. resources to what he terms a vital counterinsurgency effort. "It's not at all unusual that you would have in a counterinsurgency situation a government that has less than complete authority or popularity because in fact if you had a very effective government to begin with, you wouldn't have an insurgency," Boot said.

But a number of other experts say counterinsurgency efforts will be fruitless unless Afghans consider their leaders credible. Thomas Johnson of the Naval Postgraduate School is among the analysts saying a loya jirga, or constitutional convention of Afghan elders and leaders, would have been a better path for leadership transition in the country. He told CFR.org that for a counterinsurgency strategy to be successful, "you've got to have a regime that's viewed as legitimate by 80 percent to 85 percent of the people." Johnson believes the West has been pursuing a dubious strategy of trying to graft a Jeffersonian democracy onto a tradition-bound Afghan state.

Additional analysis:

CFR's Stephen Biddle testifies that the most important U.S. interest in Afghanistan is to prevent chaos from destabilizing its already troubled neighbor, Pakistan.

CFR President Richard N. Haass calls for a middle ground approach for the Obama administration that includes maintaining current force levels but ratcheting up training of Afghan military and police forces, and dramatically increasing aid to Pakistan, where the greater threat to U.S. security exists.

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