1cdaacf85fa58210VgnVCM100000e56411acRCRDapproved/thenational/Articles/Migration/2009-Q4If this is progress, what would an Afghan disaster look like?0cdaacf85fa58210VgnVCM100000e56411ac____If this is progress, what would an Afghan disaster look like?When the US senator John Kerry stood side by side with Hamid Karzai after coaxing and cajoling the Afghan president into a presidential election run-off, the US media hailed it as a sign of progress. In fact, it served notice that the Obama administration's Afghanistan strategy is a shambles.<p>When the US senator John Kerry stood side by side with Hamid Karzai after coaxing and cajoling the Afghan president into a presidential election run-off, the US media hailed it as a sign of progress. In fact, it served notice that the Obama administration's Afghanistan strategy is a shambles.
Fearing a quagmire, Mr Obama has hesitated on a request by his handpicked commander, Gen Stanley McChrystal, to send 40,000 extra troops simply to hold the line against the Taliban. Officials began to argue that the US could not send reinforcements until the Afghan election debacle was resolved. The counterinsurgency strategy required a legitimate Afghan government, the argument ran, and Mr Karzai had won a first-round victory only because of more than a million fraudulent ballots.</p>
<p>Maybe so, but the argument is a red herring. Sure, those ballots were fraudulent, but the far more significant threat to the legitimacy of the next government was that more than 12 million of Afghanistan's approximately 17 million voters stayed away from the polls in response to a violently enforced Taliban boycott (in contrast to the 70 per cent turnout in the 2004 presidential election). The Taliban were by far the biggest winners in the first round of voting, and the turnout for Mr Karzai and his opponent Dr Abdullah Abdullah is unlikely to increase in the second round; on the contrary, it is expected to decline.</p>
<p>The organisation of the run-off borders on farce. The UN has sacked some 200 of the 380 senior polling officials on suspicion of complicity in fraud; they have to be replaced, and whole new cadres of balloting officials hired, within two weeks. Western officials don't sound confident that massive fraud can be avoided in a second round.
Many observers also fear that a new round of campaigning would sharply heighten tensions between ethnic Pashtuns (Mr Karzai's base, but also the Taliban's) and ethnic Tajiks, the main support base of Dr Abdullah. Such tensions could cloud US plans to transfer more responsibility to the Afghan security forces, whose senior officer corps is Tajik-dominated.</p>
<p>It's far from certain, though, that the run-off vote will go ahead - and nor does the US necessarily want it to. As one report put it last week: "Western officials also continued advocating a power-sharing compromise to avoid the problems of a second round of voting." Problems? You would think Washington might have thought about those before forcing Mr Karzai to accept a second round.
Then again, cynics read the pressure for a run-off as a device to bring an increasingly insubordinate protege back under US tutelage by forcing him to share power; after all, the Americans have made clear all along that they accept the inevitability of the incumbent remaining president, even after a second vote.</p>
<p>Being forced into the run-off is certainly a slapdown for Mr Karzai, a tribal leader parachuted in by the US in early 2002 who understood that his only prospect of survival lay in cutting deals with the myriad warlords who control Afghanistan's hinterland, and in ritually denouncing those aspects of the western military presence in his country - such as air strikes - that most antagonised the Afghans. The Taliban, of course, have always maintained that Mr Karzai is a US stooge, and last weekend it looked as if Mr Kerry was trying to prove their point.</p>
<p>It is fanciful to imagine that a run-off election, or even forcing Mr Karzai to share power with his former foreign minister, will substantially improve the prospects for victory in Afghanistan. From a security perspective if nothing else, trying to avoid the run-off seems more sensible.
US commanders on the ground are not setting nearly as much store by the election saga as are their political overlords in Washington. Gen McChrystal is making clear that Mr Obama can no longer afford to delay the issue of reinforcements, stressing that simply stopping the Taliban from extending its control over much of the countryside in the south and east will require 40,000 more troops - and he would prefer 80,000. Moreover, logistical constraints mean they can be introduced only at a rate of around 4,000 a month.</p>
<p>The war may look unwinnable to any student of history, but Americans often imagine themselves immune to history's rules, and Mr Obama doesn't want to go into the next election being pilloried for "losing" Afghanistan (not that the Taliban will necessarily sweep back into Kabul, but they could do a pretty good job of surrounding the cities and choking Nato supply lines).
So it's a safe bet that Mr Obama will escalate US military involvement, even as he promises increasingly sceptical Democrats that the Afghan security forces are being "trained" to take over security in the near future. This, too, is something of a fiction: when 4,000 US Marines deployed in Helmand shortly before the election, they took with them 400 Afghan troops who showed little appetite for getting out among the people. Close to 100,000 Afghan troops have been trained, but how effective they are in fighting the Taliban is anybody's guess.</p>
<p>The idea that 400,000 Afghan security personnel will provide a plausible substitute for Nato troops is another leap of faith; as citizens of a country deeply locked in a civil war, many of them may take some persuading to lay down their lives on behalf of a government widely perceived to be the creation of foreigners (an impression Mr Kerry so ineptly reinforced).
The glum truth facing Mr Obama is that if he is unwilling to take the domestic political consequences of sharply reducing US aims in Afghanistan and drawing down troops, he is likely to conduct his own 2012 re-election campaign while commanding almost as many American troops in Afghanistan as there were in Iraq when his anti-war credentials helped to win him the presidential nomination in 2008.</p>
<p><i>Tony Karon blogs at rootless cosmopolitan, www.tonykaron.com</i></p>