But it's not just negligence or incompetence that keeps him from making his decision: its leverage. The troop surge issue was Obama's way of pressuring the Karzai government in Afghanistan to have legitimate second elections. He can't be seen to supporting a suspect government.
There were second elections in place because the first ones were marred with scandal from the very beginning. Presidential candidates were linked to warlord groups and even Karzai's vice-presidential candidate, Marshal Muhammad Qasim Fahim, was linked to drug traffickers. There was a huge security vacuum and election day was seen as extremely high-risk. Access to polling stations was severely compromised and ISAF (The International Security Assistance Force) was on high alert.
According to the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, the day turned out to be exactly the disaster ISAF was expecting. "Polling day recorded the highest number of attacks and other forms of intimidation for some 15 years. Regrettably, 31 civilians were killed, including 11 IEC officials as well as 18 Afghan National Police (ANP) and eight Afghan National Army (ANA) personnel."
After the election, declarations of fraud and corruption only became louder: charges of fake voter tickets being bought and sold, bribes being offered, coercion and polling stations being shut down and attacked.
The results were contested. According to the BBC, the partial results were: Hamid Karzai – 212,927 votes, 40.6%, and Abdullah Abdullah – 202,889 votes, 38.7%.
Neither of the two has been directly implicated in corruption, but both are most likely involved in some way. It’s inevitable and unavoidable.
Abdullah allies mostly with the Tajik north. He IS the old Northern Alliance, and he holds Ahmad Shah Massoud as his mentor (a beloved "character" we all remember from Khaled Hosseini's A Thousand Splendid Suns).**
And under heavy U.S. and Western pressure, Karzai acquiesced to a run-off election to be held on November 7, 2009.
It was hoped that Karzai and Abdullah would work together in some kind of coalition government. Despite all the corruption, the two had garnered at least 80% of registered votes. Abdullah had the support of the Tajik north and Karzai has the support of the South. As well, they had worked together before: Abdullah was the Foreign Minister of the first Karzai government.
But, it was decided only a few weeks ago that the run-off election would be cancelled. Karzai's term was renewed and he was declared victor. On November 1, 2009, Abdullah announced that he was withdrawing, saying "I will not participate in the November 7 election," because a "transparent election is not possible."
Obama will have to make his decision about the troops now, as soon as possible. It likely won't be zero, but it certainly won't be all 40,000, as requested. The issue of bad government in Afghanistan is an even bigger headache for the Americans, if Islamic insurgents and poppy trafficking wasn't bad enough.
The war in Afghanistan is a political mess. And when the invasion first happened, THIS was seen as the good war, and Iraq was seen as the illegitimate war. Over time, the tables have certainly turned. While many Western politicians are adamant that we stay the course, most are starting to second-guess the nation-building and democratizing policy that is underpinning the US invasion.
The Iraq-Afghanistan Difference
When the US first came into Iraq, we would do well to remember that Iraq already had a history of strong government, industry and wealth. When the Americans came in, many Iraqis saw them as liberators and the presence of American soldiers was seen as safe. Baghdad was already seen as the centre of the country and it was easier to see the Americans filling a centralized role.
Afghanistan is a different story. Kabul has never really had a strong grasp over the rest of the nation. So when the Americans came into this dirt-poor country, they tried to not only displace the government but also to strengthen it and centralize it, and extend its control over the rest of the country.
The first part was easy. The campaign of displacing the government started early October, after 9/11. It was a relatively short campaign. The number of American soldiers on the ground, at the height of the campaign, was literally no more than 300 Allied forces. The Americans bought out the Northern Alliance (who hated the Taliban) and subcontracted the war. The soldiers and the CIA brought equipment and luggage bags full of money, to win over support on their side.
So the government was won with 300 soldiers and a wad of cash.
But now what? A makeshift government stands in Kabul but it has little power. It has limited control over the rest of the country and it can't strengthen its own services because Afghanistan has no industry, no wealth and no economy.
So what will become of Afghanistan? What will it look like before the West is finally able to convince itself that its okay to leave? The Americans have to leave eventually and their dreams of having a "good" government in Kabul will not ever be realized. The most they can hope for is "not bad."
And how can they get even that? For one thing, the corruption cannot be dealt with. It's inevitable and somewhat stabilizing, since there are so many diverse and violent interests in Afghanistan.
Second, the intervening forces may have to rethink centralized government and democracy. They may have to allow diverse groups to exist and have their own local forms of governance, tribal councils or loya jirgas. The most control that Kabul can hope to extend over them is to have them all agree that they are normatively anti-Taliban and perhaps get them to accept Kabul as the big dog. Other than that, it will have to be a loose arrangement, and we may just have to get used to it.
**The Northern Alliance and Massoud fought against the Soviets during the Cold War, and then later fought against the Taliban. Their goal was to set up an Islamic state in Afghanistan - without Taliban fundamentalism. Massoud, who was working closely with the CIA to shut down the Taliban, was killed - most likely as part of the 9/11 attacks.