Piling yet another delicate issue on top of Afghanistan's already numerous problems, the Election Commission has presented the country with a dilemma. President Hamid Karzai's term is up in May, yet the commission has ruled that no election is possible before August. Security and politics have clashed with law and the constitution, and it is not yet clear which will win.
What was President Hamid Karzai thinking in trying to schedule a snap election?
On the surface, at least, the president appeared to be simply trying to head off a constitutional crisis by moving the presidential election, already scheduled for August 20, to April. After all, his term is up in May. An August election not only violates the Afghan constitution, but theoretically leaves the country without a president for three months.
But nothing is ever simple in Afghanistan. Kamran Bokhari, an analyst with the private intelligence firm Stratfor, believes Mr. Karzai was hoping to gain the advantage of a quick election while he still has some political clout.
"Karzai has kind of seen the writing on the wall because the Taliban are rising and that the best-case scenario is, 'you know, I will be part of an eventual deal that will involve the Taliban and what not, and I won't be the top dog [highest authority].' So he was threatening that, you know, 'I have to hold on to what I have before I deal with something else.' So he dropped this date," said Kamran Bokhari. "But the problem with this date is how can you have elections in such a short period of time?"
How, indeed. Even in developed countries, the logistics alone of organizing a full-scale national election in less than 60 days are extremely difficult. Trying to do so in a poorly developed country beset by an armed insurgency in winter weather, they are impossible, ruled the independent election commission as it ordered the polls to be held in August.
The U.S., NATO, and the U.N. have all welcomed the August 20 date because it gives the international community the necessary time to deploy additional forces to Afghanistan for election security.
The Obama administration is engaged in an intense review - in fact, several different reviews - of U.S. policy in Afghanistan. Kamran Bokhari says the election date controversy underscores the dilemma the U.S. faces regarding Mr. Karzai.
"The system revolves around the individual," he said. "Karzai is the point man. From a U.S. foreign policy point of view, Karzai was our guy. So if you tamper with that system at such a crucial juncture you're only creating more problems. And let's say you don't tamper with that system. It just devolves into a chaos because of infighting and whatnot. Then you have a major problem. How can you build upon something when that very foundation is shaky?"
Former EU Special Envoy to Afghanistan Francesc Vendrell believes the U.S. has grown cool toward Mr. Karzai.
"I would say that they are not opposed to other candidates emerging, that's for sure," said Francesc Vendrell. "Whether they are actively looking for someone else, that's another matter. But I would imagine that they are considering possible scenarios and that they are not as devoted to Karzai as the previous administration was."
Afghanistan has only had one leader since the Taliban government was toppled in 2001 - Hamid Karzai. He has said he will run for another term. But surveys show that many Afghans are disillusioned by corruption and what they view as lackluster governance by the Karzai administration. James Dobbins, who was President Bush's first special envoy to Afghanistan, says Mr. Karzai's luster has faded somewhat.
"His popularity has fallen but it's still above 50 per cent," said James Dobbins. "He certainly has the greatest name recognition in the country. He has a continued base of support. I mean, most Western leaders would be happy to have a popularity rating that high. So I don't think one can count him out. Nevertheless, his popularity rating was probably 80 per cent three or four years ago. So it's fallen significantly."
What happens when Mr. Karzai's term is up in May is not clear. Parliament might pick an interim president who may or may not be Mr. Karzai.
It is widely expected that the reorganized Taliban will try to disrupt the elections. But analysts say the uncertain political situation also raises the question of what international forces in Afghanistan would - or would not - do if there is unrest against Mr. Karzai - not from the Taliban but from domestic political opposition.