August 20th, 2009: save the date. The second round of post-Taliban elections in Afghanistan is slated to take place on this day -- next Thursday -- and expectations are mounting. Though the war in Afghanistan (as well as combat in Iraq), has largely taken a backseat to domestic issues in the Obama Adminstration's rhetoric and the views of the public about threats to national security, key observers have identified this round of polling as an important benchmark for overall state-building progress in the country.
The International Crisis Group, a respected Brussels-based advisory organization on conflict and instability, put what is well understood in this way:
Indeed, though Hamid Karzai appears posed to again emerge victorious, his position domestically is significantly weakened as compared to years past -- a situation that has required significant concessions to political opponents. This arrangement, often in the form of political posts, influence and so forth, while maintaining apparent unity of the government, also entrenches a level of fragmentation into the government from day one. How serious these divides are will dictate the efficacy of the reform, capacity-building and security improvement that has been promised throughout the political leadership of all alliances, including the US and NATO.
In addition to the strong national identification, there is a growing dissaproval of the conduct of the international community in Afghanistan, particularly the US, and a similar drop in confidence in the country's direction.
Taken at the final twilight of the Bush Presidency, the ABC/BCC polling indicates a remarkably dubious Aghan population, something that the Obama administration clearly understood coming into office. Anchored in his March address, the explicit US approach has undergone some significant changes. Five elements are key:
With violence rising and intimidation rife, you can never be certain the outcome of such an election. Both internationals and nationals have been targeted in the widely expected rise in attacks. Violent, state-skeptical elements, led by Taliban, have promised to disrupt the elections as much as possible. However, unless something radically changes, we can expect a relatively narrow Karzai bloc victory, as compared to his past resounding success. With the arrival of additional US forces, and a new Afghan government, we will see over the next five years if either change is afoot or stagnation is setting in.
A key part of this challenge will be, as it is in other regions of the world, whether the Obama administration's rhetoric for strategy adjustment can actually be implemented in practical terms, and similarly if the impacts are as profound as suggested. While the President has done a remarkable job of managing expectations of the US public regarding foreign policy, in part by focusing strongly on his promises of domestic reform, the political impact of non-delivering policies could be seen by 2012. Tangible benefits for both the Afghans, in terms of security and stability, and for the Americans, in terms of clear benchmarks towards exit, will therefore be key to the Obama communications plan of 2011 and 2012. It is not yet clear what profile Afghanistan will have in the 2010 elections either, something that we will see first by the US political reaction to the elections next Thursday.
Note: Thanks to commenter who noted an important typo in the previous ethnicity chart.