The counterinsurgency strategy outlined by Gen. Stanley McChrystal in a report leaked Monday aims to win the Afghan population over to the side of their government. But last month's unresolved election, marred by widespread fraud, has left Afghans less optimistic that security and good governance are available from Kabul and its local emissaries.
In the contested province of Kandahar, for instance, tribal elder Haji Padshah says police told voters to reelect President Hamid Karzai in districts like Arghandab, Shorabak, Spin Boldak, and Registan. Such incidents show how corrupt political leaders stand in the way of General McChrystal's vision of training a police force that serves the people, and in doing so, wins undecided Afghans away from support for the Taliban.
"If you have fraud in the elections, you don't have the right person [as leader], and if you don't have the right person, you can't make security better," said Mr. Padshah in a telephone interview.
The McChrystal report appears to agree with Padshah. In it, he argues that NATO forces must "prioritize responsive and accountable governance – that the Afghan people find acceptable – to be on par with, and integral to, delivering security."
But there's serious debate as to whether that can be done in the context of the government that emerges from these elections. Some argue that a focus on improving local government can redeem the Kabul regime; others see that as an impossible mission, given the centralized structure of the government. To the consternation of both sides, Washington appears fixated on the question of more troops, not on reducing corruption and other abuses by Afghan officials.
"Here, the discussion centers around how many more troops should we send, when we should be talking about how to get the Afghan government to clean up its act," says Christine Fair, an Afghanistan expert at Georgetown University in Washington. "More troops can't fix this. The only reason we are talking about this is that's the one element we can control."
While he wants more boots on the ground, McChrystal also agrees that they won't do much good without fundamental changes in Afghan political and police behavior. "Additional resources are required, but focusing on force or resource requirements misses the point entirely,'' he wrote. "The key take away from this assessment is the urgent need for a significant change... in the way that we think and operate."
Afghans focused on fraud
The question uppermost in many Afghan tribal leaders' minds is how any good can come of an election that many of them believe was fixed to favor President Karzai.
"How is the fraud good for the country? The government offices are full of corruption, and it will be like this to the end," says Haji Abdul Ahad, a tribal elder from Helmand Province. Says Haji Jahndi Khan from Paktika Province: "We can't improve daily life with fraud."
Fraudulent election practices kept good people from winning provincial council seats, says Zabit Mohammad Karim from Balkh Province. "Without power and money, you can't do anything in this country. If we have fraud how are we going to improve the corruption?"
To be sure, most of the Afghans interviewed for this article supported sending more US forces, largely because they don't trust local security forces. Nor do they expect to be able to trust police and Afghan officials anytime soon, if a government comes to power through a rigged vote.
Echoes of Soviet occupation
Afghan analysts in Kabul share their skepticism. For security analyst Haroun Mir and political scientist Wadir Safi, the present situation echoes the failed Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
Russia committed more troops in the 1980s than current NATO levels, but "the Afghan people refused to accept the authority of the central government," says Mr. Mir.
"The minimum requirement for an effective counterinsurgency is some degree of acceptance of the political authorities one is trying to support," says William Maley, an Afghanistan expert at the Australian National University. "If you have a series of events such as the Aug. 20 election – which has the effect of delegitimizing the existing political authorities – it's really like pushing water uphill with a stick."
Anthony Cordesman, a US expert who advised McChrystal on his report and favors sending more troops, argues that legitimacy has a lot less to do with elections than some are suggesting.
"Legitimacy as you are describing is very Western, it's not how Afghans perceive it. Afghans perceive legitimacy as what the government actually does: Does it provide security, services, and some kind of tangible aid?" says Mr. Cordesman.
He, too, is frustrated that the discussion has focused on military rather than civilian plans. But he says that the initial reorientation around counterinsurgency will have to be done largely through the military, since the US does not have enough civilians who are willing and able to function in a war zone.
Importance of local governments
The counterinsurgency strategy outlined by McChrystal is "not based on working through the central government as it exists," says Cordesman. Rather, it envisions getting tougher on corruption, identifying more capable central government ministries and administrators to work through, and, crucially, focusing on local and regional governments, he says.
Improving local governments has already proven workable in eastern parts of the country, he says.
Ms. Fair counters that it's not possible to simply work around the central government. "Kabul decides where the road is going to go, where electricity installed, and where water resources will go," says Fair.
Nor can you just focus on training the local police while ignoring the political leadership. That is what is currently happening with the NATO police training program known as Focused District Development, she argues.
"What is the point of police training when the Afghan government can't facilitate a process of getting rid of corrupt governors?" Fair asks. "They just get moved around: Why can't they be retired?"
If the still-undecided election goes to a runoff, there's a chance opposition candidate Abdullah Abdullah could win, providing an instant shakeup of the government. However, election complaints have been filed against Dr. Abdullah's campaign as well.
Low turnout possible for a runoff
Further, a runoff could attract an extremely low turnout – maybe 10 percent – says Professor Safi, because many voters in the first round were motivated to participate in the provincial level elections.
And if the current government returns to power amidst all these doubts, "then even sending 1 million more troops won't work," he says.
Safi argues for a clean break: Convene a loya jirga, or grand council, that brings together representatives from all regions and factions, including the Taliban. From there, decide on a new government.
"Any decision that comes out of such a loya jirga, with all sides participating, this can lead to an end to war," says Safi. "Nobody should remain outside the deliberations to head out to the mountains."
But the US would be uncomfortable with bringing the Taliban into the government. Others says such a loya jirga would be unwieldy. A better option would be to convene jirgas at the local level and have residents, officials, and international actors all make commitments to each other, says Thomas Ruttig, a co-director of the Afghanistan Analysis Network.
"I'm worried that everything is left to the military, including the political aims involving reconciliation," he says. "I think this should be done by politicians and the diplomats."
Follow us on Twitter.