09/20/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Karzai's Next Feat

Afghanistan's presidential elections, at least the first round, concluded on Thursday. The outcome is a bit murky. Voter turnout was mixed. Widespread fraud has been alleged. The Taliban scared many away, including reportedly hanging several voters in Kandahar. No awards will be handed out for orchestrating a pristine election.

But this election has made one thing clear. President Karzai is a master. He is a master in the art of the deal.

After his early dalliance as the dapper darling of the international community, in his karakul cap and cape stylishly draped over a statesman's grey flannel suit, Karzai proved his skill as an Afghan trader.

Less than a year ago, Karzai's back was to the wall. The Taliban had regained control of large swaths of the country after their hasty retreat in 2002. Corruption within the government had become endemic. The heroin business was once again robust. Karzai was disparaged by Afghans as largely ineffectual, with few ordinary Afghans any better off than they were two, four, or seven years ago.

Despite his loss of domestic and international support, and an abysmal track record with few if any clear victories, Karzai appears to have either secured another five-year term outright, or will advance to a runoff. He did it through masterful horse trading.

He has cut deals with tribal chieftains, mujahedeen, and warlords, who reportedly delivered massive blocks of votes from their tribes full of people otherwise disaffected, disinterested, or disillusioned. He has reputedly cut deals with other presidential candidates in order to swing their supporters to his camp in exchange for appointments and influence. He has demonstrated the power of incumbency, forcing the international community to stay largely on the political sidelines.

International observers will decry the lack of election integrity. Losing candidates will fuss about backroom deal-making. Powerful warlords will continue to run their fiefdoms with minimal intrusion. Ordinary Afghans will continue to toil, despite purple-dyed fingers attesting to their desire for a voice in their future. Those in power will continue to work for their own corrupt gain. The Taliban will continue to exert their powerful influence wielded through fear, oppression, and money. Foreign military action will continue to be necessary. Billions more will be spent on development aid and foreign assistance.

It is not a satisfactory trajectory. But it is a predictable one.

Afghanistan has many of the trappings of a nation-state. It has a national currency, a robust government bureaucracy, a tax system, a military, and a flag.

But Afghanistan is not yet a true nation-state, with free and fair elections, strong administrative institutions, and a healthy respect for the rule of law to regulate over the whim of man.

Afghanistan is a tribal society, and its current governance needs to conform to that tribal order. Karzai knows that, and he appears to have cemented another five-year term by returning to this fundamental political truth.

There is little question that establishing a functioning nation-state in Afghanistan is a critical objective to enhancing the stability and security of this volatile region, with Iran in foreshortened revolutionary tumult to Afghanistan's west and Pakistan in its never-ending dysfunction to its east.

But to achieve such a nation-state, the first order of business is for Afghanistan to establish a healthy tribal order from which the nation-state may transcend. This is the true challenge.

Afghanistan's tribal society has grown unhealthy, as greed and corruption by those at the top of the tribal power hierarchy are siphoning off the resources, rewards, and wealth, starving those at the base of basic sustenance, physical security, and virtually any ability to improve their day-to-day lot in life.

Karzai the Master, if he wins the presidency, will now need to negotiate back into tribal affairs a fair exchange amongst the powerful and the powerless. He needs to demand integrity by the tribal leaders, rooting out corruption and the usurious patronage that bleeds the collective wealth of the people.

He must shift his negotiating abilities from allocating the spoils for the personal enrichment of those loyal, to managing a healthy confederation of tribes, administered well through the loya jirga and other tribal governance mechanisms from which a truly functioning nation-state can thereafter rise.

He needs to respect the traditions and values of the tribal order in Afghanistan, while setting forth the higher vision of a nation built upon a well-functioning legal order and the establishment of governing institutions that truly deliver upon their own barter with the people.

Karzai must now lead Afghanistan by renegotiating its terms with itself.

Christopher Mailander is an international advisor and lawyer based in Washington, D.C.