Afghanistan's August 20th presidential election features a crowded field of candidates, but only two are considered challengers to incumbent President Hamid Karzai. The election presents the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama with some knotty problems as it attempts to calibrate its new strategy in Afghanistan.
When Hamid Karzai was installed as president by the international community in 2001, he was widely seen, particularly by the United States, as the bright hope of Afghanistan's future after the fall of the Taliban.
Now, as Mr. Karzai runs for re-election, the picture has changed markedly. The Taliban, once thought of as a defeated entity, has re-emerged as a full-blown insurgency. And Mr. Karzai is now widely seen as presiding over a corrupt government, says analyst Nora Bensahel of the RAND Corporation.
"The Karzai government is perceived by many people in Afghanistan as corrupt," Bensahel said. "Whether or not they blame Karzai for that personally, I think that there is a general sense among significant parts of the population that it may be time for a change. And people are certainly listening to the candidates that are running for office."
Afghan analyst Candace Rondeaux of the International Crisis Group says that puts the United States in an awkward position because the U.S. and Mr. Karzai are inextricably linked in Afghan minds.
"Earlier this year, the sort of strident sort of criticism that you heard coming out of the White House certainly indicated that there was displeasure with the disfunction of the government in Kabul," Rondeaux said. "But they've had to back away from that, because any Karzai fault is something that really can be linked very much to the failure of the United States to press very hard for greater transparency, greater accountability, and to also put in place institutions that are responsive to the Afghan people."
Army War College National Security Studies professor Larry Goodson says the U.S.-Karzai relationship has been souring for some time, but that, in his opinion, the Obama team has not been able to formulate any alternative to Hamid Karzai.
"I think the bloom is off the rose [the relationship has soured], but I don't think they quite knew who else it could be, or how to make it be someone else or facilitate a free and fair election. I mean, to do that you'd almost have to get Karzai not to run," he said.
The election comes as the Obama administration embarks on a new Afghan strategy. It has shifted from the narrow focus of counter-terrorism that was the hallmark of the post 2001 period to a broader approach of counter-insurgency, with higher troop levels and more training of Afghan soldiers and police. July was the bloodiest month for U.S. forces in Afghanistan since they were first deployed there in 2001.
Analysts say that Mr. Karzai also has been cutting political deals with local ethnic and tribal leaders to ensure his re-election. Candace Rondeaux says it is not at all clear that he can come through on his promises, and that could have a future impact on U.S. and allied military operations.
"Whatever deals that are being done, they are certainly being done behind closed doors," Rondeaux said. "It may not be until maybe a year, or two years from now before we fully understand the impact of the deal-making that was done, in order to secure these voting blocs in places like Qandahar, Helmand, where the insurgency has really taken control, and where the government is the weakest and it has the weakest bargaining position."
Although he is a U.S. ally, Mr. Karzai has made civilian casualties from U.S. air strikes a campaign issue. Larry Goodson says that, from the point of view of Mr. Karzai and his advisors, trying to distance himself from the United States is just good politics.
"He's been playing the anti-American, anti-Western coalition card, I think, both genuinely and, at the same time, cynically," Goodson said. "I do think that he gets genuinely angry and frustrated and unhappy when a village is bombed accidentally or whatever. But at the same time, I think it's politically a smart card for him to play. And he and his supporters and team in the [presidential] palace are aware of this."
Most analysts expect Mr. Karzai to win. But with 41 candidates running and strong challenges coming from former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah and former finance minister Ashraf Ghani, a second runoff vote is considered likely.