Leader: In Afghanistan, political success remains as elusive as military triumph

The leaders of the coalition are now ignoring allegations of fraud and corruption that they have not

In June, amid widespread claims of vote-rigging and ballot-stuffing, the leaders of western nations were united and outspoken in their condemnation of the Iranian presidential election results. Referring to Tehran's ruling regime, Gordon Brown said that questions "have got to be answered".

In the United States, Vice-President Joe Biden waited less than 48 hours after the 12 June election to state that "there's some real doubt" over whether Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had been legitimately re-elected president of Iran.

So why the silence from these same leaders in the wake of deeply flawed, possibly fraudulent, presidential elections in neighbouring Afghanistan? Independent monitors from the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan have documented numerous cases of voter intimidation, multiple and underage voting, fraud, ballot-stuffing, and polling centres closing early. At the time of writing, the Afghan electoral complaints commission was considering 640 "Priority A" complaints that could alter the final results.

Yet the US president, Barack Obama, chose to describe the election as "successful" and an "important step forward". Prime Minister Stephen Harper of Canada hailed it as a "remarkable" success for democracy in Afghanistan. Our own ambassador in Kabul said he was "pretty satisfied with how these elections have gone".

In their desperation to find anything that might lend legitimacy to our continued military presence in that war-torn land, the leaders of the coalition countries are now ignoring allegations of fraud and corruption that they have not tolerated elsewhere. Having invested so much political capital in these supposedly "free and fair" elections, they simply cannot afford for them to fail.

As such, we should not expect the legitimacy of the incumbent, Hamid Karzai, to be challenged publicly by Mr Brown or by President Obama. Mr Karzai's opponents, however, are aghast. His chief rival, Abdullah Abdullah, alleges "state-crafted, state-engineered fraud" on a "massive" scale, and has wondered recently why this kind of thing is accepted in Afghanistan when it "isn't tolerated in other democratic elections".

This is an important - and awkward - question, which, depressingly, remains unanswered. As do wider questions about the conflict that this magazine has posed repeatedly in recent months. Why are we fighting in Afghanistan? How do we define victory, and is it even achievable?

As we have noted before, the coalition forces have failed to achieve any of their ever-changing aims. Eight years into the conflict, and with the number of British service personnel killed in Afghanistan having surpassed the death toll in Iraq, Osama Bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri remain at large - as does the Taliban leader Mullah Omar. The Taliban themselves are resurgent; the United Nations estimates that nearly half the country is vulnerable to insurgent attacks.

The poppy fields of Afghanistan are still the world's leading source of opium, and the insurgency continues to enjoy substantial annual revenues from drugs. A recent UN report showing falling levels of opium cultivation and production in Helmand Province masked other facts - for instance, overall levels are higher than they were three years ago, when British troops were first deployed there.

On a recent surprise trip to Helmand, Mr Brown promised to provide more support and equipment to British soldiers to help them cope with the Taliban's improvised roadside bombs. But such technical fixes provide no long-term solution to the conflict. Meanwhile, political stability is a pipe dream. This tainted election, for which 22 British soldiers laid down their lives in July alone, has further undermined the idea that democracy can be imposed through the barrel of a gun.

Political success remains as elusive as military triumph. In a curious statement last month, however, President Obama's special envoy to Kabul and Islamabad, Richard Holbrooke, remarked that victory in Afghanistan was like pornography: "We'll know it when we see it." The question is whether such a vague definition of success could ever be enough to satisfy the public on both sides of the Atlantic, a public that has long been opposed to this bloody conflict, and is rightly growing weary of seeing service personnel returning home in bodybags with no credible endgame in sight.

This article first appeared in the 07 September 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Meet the new progressives