Marines of the 2nd Battalion, 8th Regiment, walk across a stream during a dawn patrol in the farm fields of Afghanistan's Helmand River valley. Now that the disputed Afghan presidential election has been settled, President Obama must decide whether to send more U.S. troops to Afghanistan.
Marines of the 2nd Battalion, 8th Regiment, walk across a stream during a dawn patrol in the farm fields of Afghanistan's Helmand River valley. Now that the disputed Afghan presidential election has been settled, President Obama must decide whether to send more U.S. troops to Afghanistan. David Gilkey/NPR
Afghan President Hamid Karzai's victory by default in the contested election may resolve the country's immediate political crisis, but it could complicate the outcome of the Obama administration's much-anticipated decision on sending more U.S. troops to Afghanistan.
Officially, President Obama welcomed the developments, calling Karzai to congratulate him. But the public message included a plea for a change in tone in Kabul.
"I emphasized that this has to be a point in time when we begin to write a new chapter based on improved governance, a much more serious effort to eradicate corruption, [and] joint efforts to accelerate the training of Afghan security forces so the Afghan people can provide for their own security," Obama told reporters. "He assured me he understood the importance of this moment."
Election officials on Monday canceled a planned runoff between Karzai and challenger Abdullah Abdullah after the opposition candidate pulled out of the contest on Sunday, citing continued concerns about voting fraud.
Karzai was officially declared the winner, a move that allays international fears of having to deal with another potentially contentious election marred by violence and fraud.
But it also puts new pressure on the Obama White House to wrap up its debate over its war strategy review and whether to send as many as 40,000 additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan.
A decision had been held up in part because that blatant rigging of the August election jeopardized the legitimacy of Karzai's government, which has been an important prerequisite for U.S. counterinsurgency strategy.
Obama said that the process was messy, but was "in accordance" with Afghan law. But administration officials have expressed repeated concerns in recent months about the credibility of the Karzai government.
Some analysts suggest that President Obama should take advantage of his pending decision on more troops to push Karzai to clean up his administration and share more power.
"Our assistance needs to be tightly conditioned and linked to his performance," Zalmay Khalilzad, former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, told NPR's Renee Montagne in an interview for Tuesday's Morning Edition. "We need to have a new framework of understanding for what he needs to do."
Karzai now needs to form a new cabinet, a process that will be watched closely by U.S. officials to see whether the Afghan leader reaches out to any political opponents.
"I have no doubt about him reaching out," Khalilzad told NPR.
During his tenure in Kabul, Khalilzad met frequently with Karzai. "He likes to engage, he likes to talk to everybody. The problem is translating that into a strong, effective team, rather than inviting them to a tea party," Khalilzad said.
While Karzai was widely expected to prevail in a runoff — even without any manipulation — many Afghans remain deeply suspicious of a government in Kabul widely seen as corrupt and incompetent.
"We had a highly imperfect partner before the first round of balloting," says Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "We have a highly imperfect partner after the balloting."
Violence has been rising in many parts of the country, where the Afghan army and police often exert little control.
One good sign for U.S. officials is that Abdullah is not calling for protests. "I will play a role of the loyal opposition to promote the ideas and aspirations of our people," Abdullah told NPR's Morning Edition. "We have to clear the way for democracy to take root in our country."
Many experts have been pushing for the formation of a unity government with both Karzai and Abdullah to try to move the country forward, but the concept has seemed unlikely. Abdullah told NPR that he and Karzai have not talked in several days, and that it is up to Karzai to make the next steps.
"I consider this as the last chance for Afghanistan — not just this election, but I mean the fact that the international community has been helping Afghanistan get out of this so that Afghanistan will be a better place for us all and also to not be a threat to the rest of the world," he said. "That is why it requires the utmost sense of responsibility."
The Obama administration now must evaluate how effective a partner Karzai can be before making a final decision on the recommendation by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in the region, to send more U.S. troops.
"By definition in counterinsurgency, you are always working with deeply flawed hosts," says Biddle, who served on McChrystal's strategy review team. "You have to use your leverage over time to improve the ability of a deeply flawed government to deliver the requirements that its public demands of it, of which the most immediate and important are security and justice."
McChrystal has called for a strategy that focuses more on protecting the Afghan people than battling with Taliban insurgents for control of remote, rural swaths of territory. He has also recommended boosting the U.S. and international civilian effort to fight corruption and build a government apparatus capable of delivering basic services to the Afghan people.
Obama aides support the broad outlines of McChrystal's recommendations, but there has been intense internal debate over whether the additional U.S. troops are necessary.
For one thing, the White House is dealing with complicated domestic politics. Many Democrats oppose an additional troop buildup, while some Republicans have accused President Obama of stalling on a decision.
Biddle rejects the notion that the White House review is taking too long, although he says that he expects a decision relatively soon.
"The administration needed the review to make a better decision," he says. "It also needed the review to demonstrate to progressives in the Democratic Party that their views were being taken seriously — that the administration was not simply rubber-stamping the military's recommendation."
Thomas Gouttierre, who runs the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, notes that the Afghan people are also watching this policy review closely.
"People in Afghanistan are still concerned whether or not the United States is going to be a consistent, reliable partner," says Gouttierre, who recently returned from a visit to Afghanistan. "They are investing their lives."