Picking a Winner in Afghanistan

American debates over the war in Afghanistan tend to focus on how fast we can get our troops home and whether we can work with President Hamid Karzai’s government to negotiate a peace deal with the Taliban. But at least as important to whether the country will hold together, and whether a return of the Taliban and al-Qaeda will be prevented, is who will replace Karzai when his term ends in 2014. The United States must do everything possible to ensure a reformer wins that election.

The stakes are huge. If a warlord or corrupt politician wins the presidency, aid will be wasted and Afghanistan’s economy — still dependent on billions in annual foreign aid, such as that pledged during Sunday’s donor conference in Tokyo — will regress. Improvements in citizens’ quality of life, such as dramatic increases in life expectancy, school enrollment and cell phone availability, are likely to be squandered. Worse, insurgents will have a rallying cry likely to resonate with millions of disaffected Afghans. Civil war could resume and, with it, control over large parts of the country could be lost to the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

But if the next Afghan president can be an even moderately serious reformer, the most likely outcome will not be pretty but will be better than defeat. Plenty of good leaders are up to the challenge. Possible candidates include Hanif Atmar, a former minister of both education and the interior who recently helped start a multi-ethnic political reform movement; economic wizard Ashraf Ghani; and the former foreign minister and presidential runner-up Abdullah Abdullah. Should such a reformer prevail, the Kabul government will continue its struggle to contain the insurgency in rural locales while absorbing the occasional body blow in populated areas. But it will probably be able to hold onto major cities and transportation routes and keep the nation’s security forces intact. With the right mix of vice presidents and cabinet leaders, and a sound approach to any peace talks with insurgents, it would also be likely to defuse threats of civil war along ethnic lines.

Some may wish to avoid interfering in the elections of a sovereign nation, but Afghan reformers are calling out for help. When I visited Afghanistan in May, several suggested to me that the United States pick a winner so they could rally around him. Also, the international presence in Afghanistan will have enormous influence whether we acknowledge it or not. Supporting the Karzai government is actually a form of political intervention, as it gives the incumbent great resources, such as control of state-run media, to try to choose his successor. Moreover, with U.S. officials making decisions about how much money and how many troops to devote to Afghanistan’s long-term assistance, we have a right to say that the level of our support will be strongly influenced by the choices Afghans make — even if we will not (and should not) try to pick a winner.

It is inconceivable that Congress would sustain as many as 20,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, at an annual cost of perhaps $25 billion after 2014, and add an additional $3 billion to $5 billion a year in direct security and economic support to the next Afghan government if it is corrupt beyond hope. In such an event, while U.S. strategic interests would not lead us to end the effort completely, our commitment would surely be radically scaled back. We should emphasize this as the 2014 campaign takes shape. U.S. diplomats, ideally backed by other foreign missions in Kabul, including such key Muslim states as Turkey, Indonesia and Tanzania (which have impressive track records in fighting corruption and improving governance in recent years), should also be willing to say, publicly if necessary, which candidates would be unacceptable as president.

No formal or binding promise is possible, given the early stage of the Afghan political process and the looming U.S. elections. Still, a coordinated message from congressional leaders in both parties, President Obama and Mitt Romney could go a long way.

Making clear that we will provide much less help to Afghanistan if it chooses poor leaders may seem obvious, but it was clear recently in Kabul that the message has not gotten through. Too many Afghans think that we will desert them unconditionally, as happened before, or, based on an exaggerated sense of their nation’s geostrategic importance, that we will want to stay forever. We need to reestablish our leverage with clear, credible and consistent messaging from U.S. and international voices.

The next Afghan leader has a chance to restore U.S. faith and to help forge the kind of enduring security partnerships that the United States gradually developed with Greece, Turkey, Jordan, Egypt, South Korea and Taiwan. Afghans must be persuaded to defeat the crooks and warlords who may seek to replace Karzai. Thirteen years of American effort and treasure — and the Afghan people’s ability to escape what has become a generation of war — depend greatly on achieving a sound election process and outcome in 2014.