By Missy Ryan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Ahead of Afghanistan's last presidential election in 2009, the United States used its diplomatic and military muscle to try to pull off a successful vote in a nation expected to define the foreign policy of President Barack Obama.
Fast-forward to today: the Obama administration is taking an arms-length approach to Afghanistan's April 5th elections. U.S. soldiers are no longer taking the lead in safeguarding voters across the central Asian country. U.S. officials have steered clear of appearing to pick sides among rival candidates.
The about-turn reflects Afghanistan's shrinking role in the foreign policy priorities of the Obama administration, as senior officials turn toward the conflict in Syria, Middle East peace talks, and the crisis in Ukraine.
"The approach is very different than it was in 2009," said Shamila Chaudhary, a former official who worked on Afghanistan and Pakistan at the White House and State Department earlier in the Obama administration. "This is now a country where we can have a minimalist kind of engagement," Chaudhary added.
The contrast with 2009 is dramatic.
Then, less than a year after Obama took office, Afghanistan was seen by Obama administration officials as the "good war", unlike Iraq. Aid flowed into Afghanistan, as did U.S. soldiers in what would become Obama's surge of over 60,000 soldiers sent to fight tenacious Taliban militants.
U.S. and NATO soldiers attempted to thwart Taliban attempts to disrupt the vote, overshadowing a much smaller force fielded from Afghanistan's then-untested army. Behind the scenes, U.S. officials maneuvered to empower challengers to incumbent Hamid Karzai, the one-time Washington favorite who had come to symbolize for many Americans a weak, corrupt government, triggering an angry backlash from Karzai.
Today, U.S. forces are steadily going home. Public opinion polls show American support for the war fading. While a small foreign force may remain after 2014, the White House appears determined to put the long, costly conflict behind it, even though a serious militant threat to Afghan and U.S. interests remains.
In the leadup to the 2009 vote, Chaudhary said, the Obama administration was divided between officials aligned with special representative Richard Holbrooke at the State Department, who favored a muscular involvement in the vote, and others at the White House who did not support his vision for long-term U.S. engagement.
As former Defense Secretary Robert Gates wrote in his recent memoir, "It was all ugly: our partner, the president of Afghanistan, was tainted, and our hands were dirty as well."
A DIFFERENT ERA
In recent months, U.S. Ambassador James Cunningham and other diplomats have held talks with an array of candidates vying to replace Karzai, who is constitutionally barred from seeking a third term. But the U.S. embassy in Kabul has assumed a studiously muted tone when weighing in on the vote.
When a U.S.-funded poll in December triggered accusations of U.S. attempts to manipulate the vote, for instance, U.S. officials moved quickly to cut off funding for such polls.
"They learned a lot from last time," said Caroline Wadhams, an analyst at the Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank seen as close to the Obama administration.
"They are intentionally taking a back seat and being very cautious, rightly so, in how they are approaching the different players and in focusing on supporting the processes."
It's also unclear which candidate senior U.S. officials would prefer, even privately, to see take Karzai's place.
The three front-runners, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, former World Bank official Ashraf Ghani, and former Foreign Minister Zalmay Rassoul, are all ideological moderates whose plans to combat poverty and hopes for modernizing Afghanistan's economy appear roughly similar.
While Rassoul is seen as Karzai's preferred successor, all leading candidates have indicated they would sign a U.S.-Afghan deal allowing a small residual force to stay beyond this year, training Afghan soldiers and conducting raids against al Qaeda.
No matter who wins, and even if the bilateral deal is not finalized, Washington will have a few pressing requests of the next Afghan leader, such as future use of airfields to launch drone flights against militants in the region and permission to launch limited special forces raids against hardline militants.
The role of U.S. and NATO forces in securing the 2014 polls will be, similarly, a distant echo of what it was in 2009.
Part of that is sheer numbers: Afghan forces numbered 186,000 when Afghans voted in 2009; today they exceed 350,000.
Lieutenant-Colonel Will Griffin, a spokesman for U.S. and NATO forces in Kabul, said foreign forces had transported some elections materials ahead of the vote and had advised Afghans in planning security and logistics for the vote.
"The (Afghan security force) is in the lead and is better trained and prepared today in 2014 than in 2009, and has greater capacity for providing security," Griffin said.
Yet some question the wisdom of the hands-off U.S. approach in a vote that could help determine whether Afghanistan, once NATO departs, holds together or slides back into civil war.
Sarah Chayes, a senior advisor to the top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan in 2009, said she fears the Obama administration may again be missing an opportunity to ensure that the vote truly represents Afghan voters' desires.
"There is a presumption that this will be a real transition and an end to the Karzai era," Chayes said.
"I think that is to underestimate Karzai ... We could see a Putin-Medvedev scenario in which he could continue to largely run the government from behind the scenes."
(Additional reporting by Jessica Donati in Kabul; editing by Jason Szep and Ross Colvin)