The decision to call a second round of elections in Afghanistan, reluctantly accepted by President Hamid Karzai, was all but inevitable once it was clear the first round was seriously flawed by ballot-rigging. But it is still a high-risk strategy, and a huge logistical challenge, in the effort to produce a central government that will be seen as legitimate both inside and outside the country.
There are three main dangers to the exercise. First, the country could further solidify into polarised ethnic blocs, with the Pashtuns in the south and east backing Mr Karzai, while the Tajiks and their allies in the north back his principal opponent, Abdullah Abdullah, former foreign minister.
Second, it will prolong an already lengthy stalemate, while doing nothing to check the momentum that the Taliban insurgency has achieved. Finally, with swathes of the country under de facto insurgent or warlord control, and winter rapidly advancing, it may be impossible to ensure that the voting is any more honest than it was last time round.
Yet it was clearly impossible to press ahead with the status quo. The perceived illegitimacy of the Karzai government had made it extremely difficult for President Barack Obama and his Nato allies to commit further troops, or pour in more money to build up Afghan security forces, as fast as the allied commander, General Stanley McChrystal, would like. If there is a chance to contain the insurgency, there has to be a credible central authority soon.
Military action alone is not the solution. It is not Taliban corpses that will turn the tide. The jihadi groups, financed by the narcotics trade and reliant on the ambivalence and fear of the Afghan population, could keep this conflict going indefinitely.
Afghans need to see progress, and to see themselves in the make-up of the government. They want an end to corruption and warlordism. They want jobs, schools and clinics, roads and markets, electricity and water. They want responsive government and fair justice. Above all they want security. As Nato clears and holds larger areas, they want to know they will be protected from reprisals. They need persuading that the US and its allies are in for the long haul.
None of this is possible without a new government committed to good governance. A second election cannot guarantee that. But if it produces a result that looks more legitimate, it will be a step in the right direction.
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