Election? What Election?

Debate on Afghanistan should reflect their politics, too

Scott Wilson and Joshua Partlow had a front-page story in The Washington Post yesterday that explored the “political test” President Barack Obama faces in Afghanistan: does he do what his generals want, and commit more troops to the war, or what his liberal base wants, and start drawing down forces?

Over at his blog, Kevin Drum says Partlow and Wilson are over-playing the degree to which the president is really caught in a tight spot: “The fact that he’s aware that his base doesn’t like this is an entirely different thing from feeling that he has a genuinely tough decision to make.” That’s a reasonable point. But there’s a bigger problem with the Post story, which is that it treats Afghanistan as a static entity, when in fact that country’s internal politics are very much in flux.

Since it became clear, a few years ago, that the Taliban had been only deposed, not eradicated, and that its members posed a continuing threat to stability and security in the region, the American press has sketched out a situation in Afghanistan that is essentially bipolar: Taliban insurgents were challenging a central government led by President Hamid Karzai, and American soldiers were there to help the government fight back.

Whether that picture was ever adequate, there’s reason to believe it’s less so now. As the ballots are slowly counted from last week’s presidential election in Afghanistan, Karzai leads his top challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, but it’s apparent that there are political divisions within the country’s leadership, and it’s not clear who the winner will be. And with seemingly-credible fraud allegations threatening to undermine public trust in the government, it’s not at all clear how much authority that winner will wield. As Robert Reid of The Associated Press wrote Tuesday, the allegations:

have so poisoned the political atmosphere that it will be difficult to bring together social and political groups opposed to the Taliban. At the worst, the controversy may trigger street riots and splinter the country along ethnic lines.

Or, it may not—we just don’t know yet. Maybe Karzai will emerge from the current turmoil a stronger leader and a stronger partner. Maybe Abdullah will win, his agenda of political decentralization and reconciliation with the Taliban will work brilliantly, and we’ll all live happily ever after. Maybe we will, somehow, return to the status quo ante. But there’s reason to think that the situation is changing, and reason to worry that it may change for the worse. At the very least, the fallout from the election should be recognized as be a significant variable in the future course of Afghanistan politics. And—to apply a lesson that both the press and the government took too long to learn in Iraq—Afghanistan politics should be a significant variable in American policy.

You wouldn’t know any of this, though, from reading the front page of yesterday’s Post. Wilson and Partlow mention the Afghanistan election only once, as one of the factors leading to a recent surge in violence. They don’t mention Abdullah Abdullah at all. They track the rise in American casualties, and the shifts in American political winds, over time. But they give little sense that circumstances in Afghanistan itself may change.

To be fair, Wilson and Partlow’s assignment wasn’t to take stock of everything worth knowing about Afghanistan at the moment. It was to write a story, from Washington, about the political debate surrounding the war. (And the Post ran another story, inside the print edition, about the latest events in Afghanistan.)

But political debates don’t mean much if they’re untethered from the underlying facts. There may be plenty of Americans who hold opinions about the war that don’t take the election into account—but the press should be pushing back against, not abetting, that tendency. Instead, by not more fully acknowledging the uncertainty in Afghanistan, the Post painted a picture that was sadly incomplete.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.