THE BLOG
05/13/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Tumor At The Heart Of Our Afghan Campaign

There is a real danger that with each day that our brave troops spend fighting in the sands of Afghanistan, victory there becomes less and less worth winning.

That is a very serious charge, and I do not make it lightly. Like most people, I want to see a stable Afghanistan with strong institutions and real progress -- however slow -- toward the kind of democracy in which votes are chosen and not bought, and power changes hands according to preference not patronage.

But I just do not see that progress.

Worse, the Afghan government is moving in the opposite direction. The actions of President Hamid Karzai are becoming increasingly indistinguishable from a man set on undermining Afghanistan's democracy and institutions, and concentrating power in his own hands.

Let us go back to last year's elections. Despite being a step forward, they were still disappointing. Amid widespread fraud, Karzai opted not to campaign openly amongst the Aghan people, but rather to rely on backroom deals with regional strongmen (such as Mohammad Muhqeq, Rashid Dostum and Mohammad Fahim) to deliver their regions for him electorally. We know that the government bribed militants not to attack voters or polling stations, not because some intrepid investigative journalist got the scoop, but because the head of Afghanistan's Intelligence service, Amrullah Saleh, said so. That was, if you like, the policy.

Given that, we might have expected a concerted Allied effort to ensure that the next elections -- those to be held for Parliament next September -- will be a little less dysfunctional than the last. To that end, the Allies said they would make their support for those elections conditional on President Karzai putting his house in order in certain limited ways. He would have to fire untrustworthy officials from the body that organized the vote, The Independent Election Commission. He would have to give up his right to choose its chairman and leadership board. And he would not be allowed to weaken the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC), the body which ordered the disqualification of the nearly one million votes for Mr Karzai last year. Together, these would have constituted firm, if modest, steps in the direction of consolidation of Afghanistan's fragile democracy.

Last week, Karzai did the opposite. He did nothing to reform the Election Commission, and retains his grip over the body that organizes the future polls which are supposed to decide his electoral fate. Moreover, he did not just ignore the international community's plea not to weaken the Electoral Complaints Commission - that would have been too subtle. Rather, he stripped the UN of its power to appoint the majority of its members. He decided that from now on, that power was to be held by one person only: himself.

And to add insult to injury, he issued this in a presidential decree while Parliament was in recess, a clear signal of disdain.

Most countries in the world are not clear democracies or dictatorships, but fall somewhere on the spectrum between the two. This decree is the clearest possible indication that when President Karzai talks about his desire to strengthen Afghanistan's democracy, he is being disingenuous. He is inching away from democracy, and doing it just slowly enough for the trend not to be splashed over the front pages of the newspapers in most of the countries which are sending troops to secure his country.

And therein lies the problem. Karzai is, for the moment, supposed to be the good guy, the guy whose regime our Forces are fighting for. Slow, steady erosion of his legitimacy should be viewed as nothing less than a slow-burn chronic tumor at the heart of our Afghanistan policy. Unless we halt the trend, we face the very real prospect of many families sitting down to Christmas dinner in three or five years' time, without the sons, daughters, brothers or sisters who have been lost to a war that only served, in the end, to prop up another foreign dictator. However distasteful, that is the current direction of travel.

So what can we do?

There are no good options here. Our leverage is limited, and the preservation of Afghan democracy, however weak, depends on our not hijacking the process as much as it depends on Karzai not hijacking it.

I believe that the least bad option is to dilute his power by supporting the power-sharing agreements with moderate Taliban to which UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband this week said Britain is committed and which I have been advocating for the last three years. Of course, the pace at which this can be done depends partly on those moderate Taliban themselves. The military initiative in the spring is likely to reduce the Taliban's incentive to fight and increase their incentive to talk. But ultimately, if we are to avoid the kind of victory which is a disservice to those who fought for it, we will need to make power-sharing work, to make Afghan democracy more representative and rein in the excesses of its increasingly undemocratic President.

Azeem Ibrahim is a Research Fellow at the International Security Program at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a Member of the Board of Directors at the Institute of Social Policy Understanding.