The end to the presidential electoral drama in Afghanistan came as the Obama administration ponders the future U.S. course there. The outcome is expected to make things easier for the U.S. efforts in some respects, but may also complicate them in others.
The Afghan election was rather like a suspenseful film that comes to unsatisfying end with no resolution of outstanding plot lines. Hamid Karzai won re-election by default after his closest challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, pulled out of the runoff, forcing its cancellation.
Dr. Abdullah charged the mechanisms of electoral fraud that plagued the first vote - and that mandated a runoff - were still in place to ensure an equally flawed second round.
Tainted outcome and disappointment
Former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for South Asia Teresita Schaffer says the tainted outcome was a disappointment for the international community, which had pinned such high hopes on the election.
"The U.N., the United States, and lots of others have looked to the Afghan elections as a milestone in the stabilization of the government in Afghanistan and also a milestone in Afghanistan's progress in having an orderly constitutionally-based government," said Schaffer. "And the scale of the apparent fraud makes it a not particularly helpful milestone on either of these roads."
But says former EU Special Envoy to Afghanistan Francesc Vendrell, there is little the international community can do but make the best of an unpleasant situation.
"I think that it makes life more difficult for the U.S., even though I think the administration, as well as other European governments, will probably claim that things are now fine," said Vendrell. "One is faced with an administration in Kabul that has little legitimacy, but one of course will probably have to try to work with it."
The electoral result came as the Obama administration was hunkered down in deep deliberations on a new U.S. strategy in Afghanistan. General Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, is advocating the deployment of additional troops as part of a counter-insurgency strategy to fight the Taliban.
Professor Larry Goodson of the U.S. Army War College says the Karzai re-election complicates counter-insurgency thinking.
"My perception is that there are people in the U.S. government who have been trying to figure a way out of this corner we have sort of painted ourselves into, which is, counterinsurgency is the way to do things," he said. "Well, counterinsurgency requires a legitimate government that you are helping. Well, the government is not legitimate. Therefore, we have got to do things to improve its legitimacy."
But how can a government that won office through questionable means, and is tainted by corruption, gain legitimacy? Teresita Schaffer, now director of the South Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, echoes other analysts in saying that can only be achieved through performance.
"The first requirement for the government in Afghanistan is that it expand its ability to govern," said Schaffer. "The Karzai government is not going to have electoral legitimacy on much of a grand scale. If it improves, its actual governing it can acquire the legitimacy that comes with doing a decent job. And that is their challenge at this point."
Analysts say that requires aggressively moving to root out corruption and deliver government services. Larry Goodson suggests, among other steps, President Karzai should relinquish some of the powers of government.
"My recommendation has been that we push Karzai toward a head of state role, we work harder to bring currently less corrupt and more technically proficient people into the line ministries and the governorships and so forth, and that we try to empower the local political leaders by pushing some of the power down to there," he said. "And in the process you are going to have to go after corruption and service delivery as ways of strengthening government."
After his victory President Karzai pledged to tackle corruption, but offered no specific plans of how to do so. President Obama said the proof of the Afghan leader's intentions will come not in words, but deeds.