In the Arena

Afghan Hunch

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Sometimes, as a journalist, you just sense the play behind the play. Rahm Emanuel’s statement yesterday that more troops would not be forthcoming until the Karzai government got its act together reflects sentiments I’ve heard expressed by several of the key non-military decision makers in the Afghan policy review. On the surface, it seemed designed to pressure Hamid Karzai to allow a runoff election and clean up his act.

But there was another implicit message as well…

This one was directed at Abdullah Abdullah, the former foreign minister who ran second in the election: make a deal with Karzai now. Abdullah, young and charismatic, was the surprise of the election. “You watched him grow into a national figure as the process went on,” one diplomatic observer told me. “He’s the Afghan man of the future, but he has to decide how he wants to play this moment.” His choices are to proceed with a runoff–or to concede the election to Karzai, in return for a power sharing agreement.

The runoff is a probably a sure loser: most observers figure that Karzai–who is Pashtun royalty–will win a head-to-head contest with Abdullah, who is of mixed parentage, half Pashtun, half Tajik. On the other hand, if Abdullah presses the runoff and stays away from the Karzai government, he’ll be able to go into the next election untainted by association with the Karzai regime.

On the third hand, if the U.S. doesn’t stick around, there may not be another election, which is where Rahm Emanuel’s threat comes in. It seems clear–to me, at least–that the preferred U.S. outcome is no runoff election (which would be yet another security headache for U.S. troops in any case) and a coalition government in which Abdullah negotiates and achieves a significant portfolio.

I suspect that these decisions will be played out in the next week or so.