BERLIN - If President Barack Obama can find a way to balance the precise number of troops that will stabilize Afghanistan and Pakistan, without tipping America into a Vietnam there, then he indeed deserves a Nobel Prize - for physics.
I have no problem with the president taking his time to figure this out. He and we are going to have to live with this decision for a long time. For my money, though, I wish there was less talk today about how many more troops to send and more focus on what kind of Afghan government we have as our partner.
Because when you are mounting a counterinsurgency campaign, the local government is the critical bridge between your troops and your goals. If that government is rotten, your whole enterprise is doomed.
Independent election monitors suggest that as many as one-third of votes cast in the Aug. 20 election are tainted and that President Hamid Karzai apparently engaged in massive fraud to come out on top. Yet, he is supposed to be the bridge between our troop surge and our goal of a stable Afghanistan. No way.
I understand the huge stakes in stabilizing Afghanistan and Pakistan. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, our top commander there who is asking for thousands more troops, is not wrong when he says a lot of bad things would flow from losing Afghanistan to the Taliban. But I keep asking myself: How do we succeed with such a tainted government as our partner?
I know that Jefferson was not on the ballot. But there is a huge difference between "good enough" and dysfunctional and corrupt. Whatever we may think, there are way too many Afghans who think our partner, Karzai and his team, is downright awful.
That is why it is not enough for us to simply dispatch more troops. If we are going to make a renewed commitment in Afghanistan, we have to visibly display to the Afghan people that we expect a different kind of governance from Karzai, or whoever rules, and refuse to proceed without it. It doesn't have to be Switzerland, but it does have to be good enough - that is, a government Afghans are willing to live under. Without that, more troops will only delay a defeat.
I am not sure Washington fully understands just how much the Taliban-led insurgency is increasingly an insurrection against the behavior of the Karzai government - not against the religion or civilization of its international partners. And too many Afghan people now blame us for installing and maintaining this government.
Karzai already is trying to undermine more international scrutiny of this fraudulent election and avoid any runoff. Monday his ally on the Electoral Complaints Commission, Mustafa Barakzai, resigned, alleging "foreign interference." That is Karzai trying to turn his people against us to prevent us from cleaning up an election that he polluted.
Talking to Afghanistan experts in Kabul, Washington and Berlin, a picture is emerging: The Karzai government has a lot in common with a Mafia family. Where a "normal" government raises revenues from the people - in the form of taxes - and then disperses them to its local and regional institutions in the form of budgetary allocations or patronage, this Afghan government operates in the reverse. The money flows upward from the countryside in the form of payments for offices purchased or "gifts" from cronies.
What flows from Kabul, the experts say, is permission for unfettered extraction, protection in case of prosecution and punishment in case the official opposes the system or gets out of line. In "Karzai World," it appears, slots are either sold (to people who buy them in order to make a profit) or granted to cronies, or are given away to buy off rivals.
We have to be very careful that we are not seen as the enforcers for this system.
While visiting Afghanistan in July, I met a key provincial governor who every U.S. official told me was the best and most honest in Afghanistan - and then, they added, "We have to fight Karzai every day to keep him from being fired." That is what happens to those who buck the Karzai system.
This is crazy. We have been way too polite, and too worried about looking like a colonial power, in dealing with Karzai. I would not add a single soldier there before this guy, if he does win the presidency, takes visible steps to clean up his government in ways that would be respected by the Afghan people.
If Karzai says no, then there is only one answer: "You're on your own, pal. Have a nice life with the Taliban. We can't and will not put more American blood and treasure behind a government that behaves like a Mafia family. If you don't think we will leave - watch this." (Cue the helicopters.)
So, please, spare me the lectures about how important Afghanistan and Pakistan are today. I get the stakes. But we can't want a more decent Afghanistan than the country's own president. If we do, we have no real local partner who will be able to hold the allegiance of the people, and we will not succeed - whether with more troops, more drones or more money.