NEW YORK — The United States and its Afghan and NATO allies have demonstrated unmistakable progress in Afghanistan this year. The ongoing Marjah campaign, the arrest of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar and two Taliban “shadow governors” in Pakistan, and the recent drone strike hitting top leaders of the al-Qaida- affiliated Haqqani network are all clear steps in the right direction.

But no matter what other progress is made, America and its allies cannot succeed in Afghanistan unless the Afghan government succeeds — and that government is moving in the wrong direction. Until this changes, all other efforts will ultimately be in vain and current levels of international engagement with Afghanistan will become unjustifiable.

U.S. President Barack Obama has defined America’s goals in Afghanistan as denying al-Qaida a safe haven, reversing the Taliban’s momentum, and helping the country’s security forces and government “take lead responsibility for Afghanistan’s future.” To this end, Obama launched an 18-month military “surge” with the backing of other NATO member countries, to be followed by the beginning of withdrawal.

To achieve these goals in such a short time, NATO and its Afghan partners must overcome three enormous obstacles:

• They must fight far more successfully against the Taliban to create space for rebuilding and possible negotiation.

• They must convince Pakistan to begin actively opposing the Afghan Taliban and denying them the safe haven and support they currently receive in Pakistan.

• They must support the emergence of a legitimate Afghan government that is not, unlike the current government, seen as corrupt and ineffectual by its citizens.

Because the NATO strategy’s success requires significant progress on each of these fronts, even the current preliminary signs of military progress and in Pakistan’s relations with the Afghan Taliban will be for naught if Afghanistan’s government cannot establish its legitimacy domestically. Recent efforts by President Hamid Karzai’s administration to limit its public accountability demonstrate that the Afghan government in its current form lacks either the capacity or the willingness to do so.

For at least a year before the August 2009 elections, NATO officials recognized that ordinary Afghans’ disgust with their government’s massive corruption was among the Taliban’s most effective recruitment tools. At that time, these officials argued that the elections would give Afghanistan’s leaders a clear mandate for reform. The deeply discredited elections put an end to those hopes.

The original flaw of the 2009 elections was structural. There was no voter list, and so it was nearly impossible to prevent ballot-stuffing. The body empowered to conduct the vote, the Independent Election Commission, was run by commissioners all appointed by and partial to one candidate, Hamid Karzai.

One institution, the Electoral Complaints Commission — a hybrid Afghan-international oversight body with a majority vote controlled by United Nations-appointed commissioners — retained its credibility throughout the process. Only the presence of the ECC, particularly its international commissioners, and the hope that it would ensure at least some fairness into the process prevented the electoral controversy from erupting into open conflict. As flawed as the elections were and as contentious as the outcome ultimately was, the situation would have been far worse without the ECC.

After the election, many hoped that Karzai would recognize the need to build a more accountable government to help secure both Afghanistan’s future and the future of international military and financial support. In a high-profile speech in London this past January, Karzai pledged to make progress in fighting corruption and promoting government accountability. Instead, the opposite appears to be happening.

Since his London speech, Karzai has actively opposed efforts to attack official corruption, sought to appoint warlords to his Cabinet, failed to promote civil society, and weakened processes aimed at increasing the representation of women in Parliament. To make matters worse, Karzai issued a decree on Feb. 13 permitting him to appoint all of the ECC’s members, a measure clearly designed to strengthen the patronage system and weaken opposition movements’ prospects in future elections and a strong demonstration that his administration is not serious about establishing greater government accountability.

NATO and the international community must do everything possible to foster accountable government at all levels in Afghanistan. Although Afghanistan’s government does not need to be fully centralized, Afghanistan cannot succeed if the central government fails. For this reason, unless the Karzai government changes course there is no justification for NATO member countries to risk the lives of their soldiers and commit other valuable resources to the struggle in Afghanistan if the Afghan government’s corruption and legitimacy deficit make current progress unsustainable and achievement of NATO’s goals impossible.

Karzai is free to lead his country as he pleases, but America and its allies cannot and should not maintain their current levels of commitment unless his government can establish itself as a viable partner. The 18-month clock is ticking.

Jamie F. Metzl, who served on U.S. President Bill Clinton’s National Security Council, is executive vice president of the Asia Society and served as an election monitor in the August 2009 Afghan elections. © 2010 Project Syndicate

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.