04/07/2014 01:51 pm ET Updated Jun 07, 2014

Eyes Off the Afghan Election

The April 5, 2014 Afghan presidential election represents not only the power of the Afghan people to select a new leader, but its commitment to the current political system and to the prospects for an on-going international presence through the Bilateral Security Agreement [BSA]. Reports thus far suggest a robust turn out in areas where security could be maintained, but counting is far from over and the level of legitimacy this effort will give to the government remains unknown. How ironic that the struggling democracy the U.S. created could collapse after a popular vote of no confidence? More quixotic still, and equally as troubling, is the Obama administration's lack of attention to this significant contest during the lead up to it.

Until this past week, Afghanistan's presidential election received scant attention in the American media. While some policy journals, notably Foreign Policy, gave space for commentators to provide the public with insights on political developments, few others gave the several debates and security challenges on the campaign trail much attention. Most dedicated their coverage of Afghan affairs, predictably, to questions of post-2014 troop numbers and the BSA drama with Afghan president Hamid Karzai. That nonsense seemed to go on long after it became clear to most casual observers of foreign affairs that the United States could no longer depend on their mercurial partner in Kabul. Articles quoted administration officials and Congressional leaders declaring their disgust with Karzai and their insistence on the importance of a long-term international presence in Afghanistan.

The elections remained a non-story until this week -- just days before the Afghans, those who live in areas where it is safe enough to do so anyhow, are to head to the polls. It is likely, therefore, that the administration is simply not dedicating too much thought to this contest sure to affect the future of this war-torn country it perceives as critical to American national security.

Why was the White House not thinking about this election?

The administration might just be trying to maintain a low-profile interest. A critical tenet of the administration's policy is to avoid an overbearing role in Afghanistan's domestic democratic process. With distrust of foreign influence and skepticism towards the political system entrenched in large circles of Afghan society, the White House rightly believes that the appearance of a heavy international hand could be disastrous to the legitimacy of the election. Since President Barack Obama put President Hamid Karzai on notice in late February, the administration embarked on a firm public campaign in favor of the BSA that, one can only speculate, it hoped would win over Afghanistan's presidential candidates. Recent reports defend this argument, yet the need for political finesse should not excuse the fact that the administration only makes the case for troops while saying little about the need for these elections to be as free and as fair as possible in their lead-up.

Afghanistan's elections might be the victim of the United States' geostrategic overreach. The number of military and diplomatic efforts in which the administration plays a leading role is staggering. From the standoff in Eastern Europe to counterterrorism efforts across North Africa and the Middle East to rising tensions in Asia, it is not difficult to see how a struggling White House famous for guarding its power over national security could lose track of a crisis or two. One, such as the author, might think that the president should keep the war at the very top of his list if for no reason other than his concern for the wellbeing of the servicemen and women he sent to fight there, but that does not appear to be the case.

And Afghanistan could be an attractive target for such disengagement. Along with its distrust of foreign powers and political machinations, Afghanistan's history bore a generation of complex leaders the Obama administration struggles to understand. The New York Times March 9 obituary for Vice President Muhammad Qasim Fahim highlights the dichotomies that exist within these politicians: freedom fighters and fear-mongering warlords, patriots and plutocrats, pragmatic supporters of U.S. occupation and proud nationalists tired of answering to foreigners. As much as President Obama disliked working with President Karzai, it is unclear who if any among the candidates on the ballot could be a better to partner or a more legitimate leader, should the elections go as hoped.

Lurking in the background, as always, are the spoilers in Pakistan for whom the United States has never had an answer. The government in Islamabad and the Taliban in their cross-border sanctuaries are increasingly disinterested in standing aside this close to waiting out the United States and carving out lasting influence in post-occupation Afghanistan. Prospects for successful diplomacy elsewhere may be slim, but it is hard to imagine bringing these intransigent adversaries to the negotiating table for meaningful talks at this point in the war. Perhaps, sharing this dismal assessment, the administration resigned to let the cards fall where they will while expending political capital trying to shore up Western unity in response to Russian aggression and to encourage young Americans to sign up for health care.

But just because the odds are against a successful outcome in Afghanistan does not mean the United States should wash its hands of it now. The fate of this troubled country and the legacy of the American-led occupation will be written in the ballots of commoners from Herat in the East to Khost in the West. In that country where so many young men and women fought and died in the name of counterterrorism, freedom, and other incomplete missions, an illegitimate election all but ensures their sacrifices brought Afghanistan no closer to the peace it deserves and the United States to the security it craves. For none in the administration to say anything is to ignore what strategic importance it attributed to Afghanistan when it announced the surge in December 2009. The administration's silence, whatever the justification, all but declares its indifference to what fear and suffering lay ahead.