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Elections in Afghanistan, the Second Time Around


It is a testament to the strength of our commitment to democracy that we Americans believe elections will solve the problems of a country – any country. This is a nice civics lesson but the lessons of history are otherwise. And it is not a sound principle of foreign policy. Elections in Afghanistan are unlikely to solve the country’s problems; they may even worsen things. In any event, other political processes are more important – we just haven’t realized it yet.

President Hamid Karzai,amid numerous allegations of fraud in August’s elections, has accepted a second-round runoff with Abdullah Abdullah. Domestic pressure for a second round was significant but it was pressure from the US and western bodies that forced Karzai to accede. Coming amid the Obama administration’s debate on sending more troops, one might suspect a deal: Karzai sits for a second election in exchange for more US troops. Any such deal would be a bad one. Escalation should be assessed on its own merits, not on short-term gain. Furthermore, a deal paves the way for more deals: additional troop increases in exchange for what the Afghan government should be doing anyway – acting responsibly.

The runoff between Karzai and his principal opponent, Abdullah Abdullah, will not change anything in regard to the state’s efficacy. The winner will preside over a ramshackle apparatus fraught with corrupt and inept functionaries seeking to pull in as much money as they can while western troops are holding up their political system. The winner will not be in a better position to bargain with various tribes and people, build a fairer administrative system, and otherwise counter the rising influence of insurgent groups.

Many Afghans, even those who think little of Karzai, see the second round as the result of foreign meddling. Though this might elicit some sympathy for Karzai as he protests western interference, a stronger opposite response will weaken him. Anti-western sentiment will increase, as will already strong beliefs that the West is working to bring about Northern/Tajik control of the country. Insurgents have long played upon such beliefs, and their support in the South and East will rise.

A Karzai defeat in the runoff is unlikely though not impossible. A non-Pashtun turnout elevated by the prospect of unseating Karzai and a Pashtun turnout suppressed by insurgent threats, cynicism, and winter weather could give Abdullah the presidency. This might be welcomed in the West, but not in Afghanistan. Though of Pashtun and Tajik parents, Abdullah, by virtue of his prominence in the Northern Alliance and the Jamiat-i Islami party, is considered a Tajik – unacceptable to most Pashtuns. His election would galvanize Pashtun fears of a northern conspiracy and push the country toward a north-south conflict. Pakistan will share those conspiratorial views. It will detect the sinister hand of India’s intelligence wing and respond accordingly – in and out of Afghanistan.

The runoff election is unlikely to bring significant benefits to Afghanistan or the western effort there. It will only underscore the frailty, if not the almost uselessness, of the political framework hurriedly set up by politicians and consultants after the Taliban fled in 2001.

There is another political framework, one that Karzai has failed to deal competently with, one the West has only recently begun to appreciate – tribal parley. Significant political developments are already well under way through tribal parley, which builds consensus through dispute resolution, nationalist appeals, and suppression of warlordism. Thus far, in the contest of building consensus through tribal parley, the Taliban have a commanding lead.

BRIAN M. DOWNING is the author of several works of political and military history, including The Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: War and Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam. He can be reached at:



Brian M Downing is a political-military analyst, author of The Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam, and co-author with Danny Rittman of The Samson Heuristic. He can be reached at

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