You might have seen the photo on the front page of The New York Times last week with Sen. John Kerry leaning in to whisper in the ear of Hamid Karzai, president of Afghanistan. To some, it seemed the quintessential image of international power politics — an American leader meddling with the course of events in another “sovereign” nation.

Of course, as you’ve heard many times with regard to Afghanistan, it’s more complicated than that.

Over two months ago, Afghans voted in the nation’s second presidential election since the fall of the Taliban. The international community had hoped that this election would produce a government that could serve as a legitimate and willing partner in the fight against insurgents. When millions turned out despite threats of brutal violence, American policy makers hailed this vote as a triumph.

Yet Afghans still don’t know who their next president will be.

By initial counts, Karzai won 55 percent of the vote. But allegations of fraud surfaced within days, triggering an audit by an international commission. Karzai was livid, but last weekend, following an intense session with Kerry among others, he acceded to the findings of Afghanistan’s electoral body. The commission discarded 1.25 million votes — mostly for Karzai, but some for his opponent, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah — leaving Karzai without a majority and making a runoff necessary.

On Nov. 7, Afghan voters will face an awkward choice between two candidates whose campaigns both engaged in fraud. The Karzai campaign cheated on a much larger scale; to name one egregious example, Karzai received thousands of votes from polling stations that never opened.

The situation is certainly messy, but it’s not too late for the Afghan government to salvage some legitimacy with its people. The best outcome might be a coalition government between Karzai and Abdullah, with the latter becoming a vice president and distributing a certain number of government posts to his supporters. This way, partisans of both candidates would feel that their votes had been counted.

Democracy is hardly “foreign” to Afghan culture. Dignity, fairness and the exchange of ideas have always been highly valued in village shura councils. The principles underlying democracy are not the problem; the highly centralized form of government that we have instituted in Afghanistan is.

Allowing the fraudulent results from August’s election to stand unquestioned would have contributed to the perception that “democracy” is merely a facade.

If it seems high-handed for American pundits and politicians to debate what should be done about another country’s elections, it’s important to remember that the United States is partially responsible for Afghanistan’s current predicament. The warlords and gangsters in Karzai’s haphazard coalition were put there with the acquiescence of the U.S., which wanted a cheap and easy way to bring stability to the country — even at the cost of justice and good governance. Just yesterday, the Times reported that Ahmed Wali Karzai, Hamid’s brother and a powerful politician in Kandahar and player in the opium trade, is on the CIA’s payroll and has been for eight years.

The American willingness to accept government by strongmen has deprived Afghans of the means of holding their leaders accountable. This has been doubly frustrating in the face of the corruption and incompetence of the Karzai regime.

For a new Afghan administration to regain the confidence of the population, it will need to demonstrate a commitment to reform and do it quickly. It must allow for fairer representation of ethnic minorities, devolution of some powers to local governments and greater transparency.

The political aspects of the situation in Afghanistan are too often absent from the debate over American strategy there. Proponents of withdrawal and proponents of troop increases are prone to the same mistake: recognizing the importance of political conditions only when it suits their argument. Those advocating a quick American exit correctly note that our presence makes it easier for Karzai to delay difficult but necessary reforms; those calling for a “surge” counter that our absence would doom the nascent Afghan democracy, as the regime would have no choice but to make distasteful compromises with insurgents.

Both are right — in a way. But these trade-offs have been lost in the debate over the precise number of troops America will send to Afghanistan. Rather than tearing ourselves apart over how many soldiers are in the country, we should focus on the way they and the Afghan government behave.

If the United States is serious about promoting a stable, relatively peaceful Afghanistan, we’ll need to start considering the political consequences of our policies.

It’s too late to start over in Afghanistan, but it’s not too late to do better.

Andrew Mayersohn and Mari Oye are juniors in Pierson and Timothy Dwight Colleges, respectively. They are members of the Yale Afghanistan Forum.