- By Dov ZakheimDov Zakheim is the former Under Secretary of Defense.
Afghanistan’s elections are upon us, but Washington’s attention no longer seems to be focused on the country that America’s young men and women have fought and died to bring freedom to over the past 13 years; indeed, they continue to do so. Once again, it seems that American policy makers can focus on only the crisis du jour — today it is Ukraine, and little else. President Karzai, who owes his office to American support, certainly has not helped matters by biting the hand that has fed him for so long. His latest gambit has been to recognize Putin’s seizure and annexation of Crimea, placing him in the stellar company of North Korea and Venezuela, who, alone among the nations of the world, likewise seem to feel that Putin did the right thing.
But Karzai will soon be gone. The election takes place on April 5, and he cannot run again. It is critical not only for Afghanistan, but for the United States and the West, that his successor be a man — all remaining candidates of the original 27 who put their names forward are men — who appreciates not only Western values, but actually lives by them. That man clearly is the current front runner by the slightest of margins, Ashraf Ghani. The former finance minister, advisor to Karzai (though his advice was invariably ignored), and World Bank official is a genuine friend of the West in general and of the United States in particular.
I had the distinct pleasure of working alongside him when, as Under Secretary of Defense, I also was DoD’s civilian coordinator for Afghanistan. Ashraf was finance minister at the time, and he was doing his utmost to employ such power that his office afforded him to regularize Kabul’s intake of resources and its budgets. He tried to professionalize those civil servants who worked for him. He sought not to confront the warlords-he knew that was a losing battle, but rather to pursue a strategy of co-opting them even as he worked around them.
With sustained American attention, support, and resourcing, Ashraf might have had a chance to succeed. But while Iraq diverted Washington, Karzai undermined Ghani. Eventually, Ashraf had to leave the government, and its financial and fiscal management has gone downhill ever since.
It is not at all clear how the United States can help Ashraf Ghani directly at this stage of the election campaign without being seen as meddling in Afghanistan’s internal affairs. We are no longer living in 2002, and such interference simply would allow Karzai, and the Taliban, to press even harder, if that is possible, for the complete eradication of American presence in Afghanistan. But Washington must make every effort to prevent the Taliban from disrupting the election; its latest bombings have prompted two groups of international monitors to leave the country. Moreover, and no less important, should Ghani be elected, Washington should throw the force of its influence, energy, and resources behind him. America has no better friend in Afghanistan than he; and the Obama Administration should do what it can to prove that it can still be loyal to its friends, or at least to some of them.