WASHINGTON — With the White House's reluctant embrace on Sunday of Hamid Karzai as the winner of Afghanistan's suddenly moot presidential runoff, President Barack Obama faces a new complication: enabling a badly tarnished partner to regain enough legitimacy to help the United States find the way out of an 8-year-old war.
As the evidence mounted in late summer that Karzai's forces had sought to win re-election through widespread fraud to defeat his main challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, administration officials made no secret of their disgust. How do you consider sending tens of thousands of additional American troops, they asked in meetings in the White House, to prop up an Afghan government regarded as illegitimate by many of its own people?
The answer was supposed to be a runoff election. Now, administration officials argue that Karzai will have to regain that legitimacy by changing the way he governs, at a moment when he is politically weaker than at any time since 2001.
In the early days of Obama's presidency, he and his aides searched desperately for a plausible alternative to Karzai. They found none. Since the spring, there has been little doubt that Karzai would remain in the presidential palace after the election was over. The question was whether that election process would demonstrate that a desolate nation that has always been at the mercy of larger powers would show it could find its own way. Obama's decision in March to add 21,000 troops was justified in part by the need to assure a relatively peaceful, fair election. The idea was to bolster Karzai's credibility so his authority would reach beyond the capital, Kabul.
In the United States, Obama began scaling back America's ambitions. With the advice of his defense secretary, Robert Gates, he dropped the Bush-era talk of turning Afghanistan into a Western-style democracy. He avoided the word "victory," which Bush had used often. He narrowed the U.S. military objectives to destroying al-Qaida — which is thought to be based largely in neighboring Pakistan — while simply subverting the Taliban's ability to once again take over the Afghan state, as it did in the mid 1990s.
James Dobbins, who tried to formulate an Afghan approach for the Bush administration — and wrote of his frustrations as attention turned to Iraq — told Congress earlier this year that America's objective should be to "ensure that fewer innocent Afghans are killed next year than this year."
"In a counterinsurgency campaign," he said, "this is the difference between winning and losing."
But even Obama's most limited goals require a legitimate government in Kabul, one with the authority to manage the army and to rebuild a police force whose reputation for incompetence is matched only by its habits of corruption. It also needs the ability to install competent governors and spend Western aid effectively.
Before the election was effectively ended Sunday with Abdullah's emotional withdrawal from Saturday's runoff — "I will not participate in the Nov. 7 election," he said, because a "transparent election is not possible" — Obama asked his national security aides and the State Department to come up with an agenda they could press on Karzai. It included reaching out to political opponents, cleaning out the worst of his governors and ministers, and announcing a major new push on corruption. And it included peeling away — through whatever inducements work — the least committed of the Taliban, or at least those with no links to al-Qaida.
"If this is to be a turning point," said Sen. John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who helped twist Karzai's arm to go along with a runoff, "we must strengthen the capacity of the Afghan government and insist that its leaders embrace lasting reforms."
The United States has already spent nearly a quarter-trillion dollars in Afghanistan, all the while talking about those lasting reforms. The Bush administration made periodic efforts to warn Karzai that his family's reputed links to corruption threatened his government. It sent mission after mission to teach good governance, some of which succeeded and some of which ran into what former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called "the Afghan allergy" to dictates from foreign occupiers.
For eight years, America and its allies have struggled to train an Afghan army; while it has a force of more than 90,000, U.S. commanders put the number of troops who can sustain themselves in a fight at closer to 50,000.
And in the end, that force — an Afghan army that can be trusted to defend the central government — is Obama's route out of the country. If, at the end of this election saga, that army emerges as a trusted one, able to control significant areas of the country with the cooperation of local tribal leaders who have always ruled the territory, Obama may be able to declare that it cannot again be overrun by the Taliban and al-Qaida. Then he could pull back from what he termed over the summer a "war of necessity."