Afghanistan Election Could Mean 'All Bets Are Off'

One senior Afghan official calls his nation's 2014 presidential election his top security concern.

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"All bets are off" in Afghanistan later this decade if a regime more corrupt than that of sitting chief executive Hamid Karzai is elected, says one U.S. military expert.

Elections slated for 2014 in Afghanistan will coincide with the final withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops from the war- and corruption-torn nation. Afghans are expected to elect a new president then, as Karzai reportedly has backed off plans to seek another term.

Michael O'Hanlon, a military analyst at the Brookings Institution, told a House panel Friday that a senior Afghan official recently confided that his top security concern is the coming presidential election.

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"It we elect the wrong person," O'Hanlon said the Afghan official told him, "all bets are off."

U.S. officials from the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations for years publicly and privately pressed Karzai to tamp down on government corruption.

But O'Hanlon and other experts warn it could get much worse under a new leader.

A recent Congressional Research Service report sounds a similar refrain.

"There is concern among many observers that U.S. efforts to help build Afghan governance, democracy, civil society, and rule of law will founder as the United States and its partners seek to wind down their involvement," states the report. "Some argue that the informal power structure, which has always been at least as significant a factor in governance as the formal power structure, will sustain governance beyond 2014. Others say greater reliance on the informal power structure will invite even more corruption and arbitrary administration of justice than is the case now."

O'Hanlon told the committee one way to ensure a new Pasthun regime at least matches the performance of the Karzai administration is to appoint a vice president and senior Cabinet ministers who hails from the Tajik sect.

Pashtuns are the largest ethic group in Afghanistan, making up 42 percent of its total population, according to the CIA and Library of Congress. Tajiks make up 27 percent, making them the second-largest ethnic group there.

The slate of Afghan presidential candidates remains foggy. But O'Hanlon is sounding a warning, saying if several of the individuals rumored to be mulling a run get into the race, U.S. officials "need to find a way to veto [them]."

The catch there? As the U.S. military has a smaller footprint and combat power in Afghanistan, Washington's influence will steadily decline, experts say.

John T. Bennett covers national security and foreign policy for U.S. News & World Report. You can contact him at jbennett@usnews.com or follow him on Twitter.

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