The warning by the United States that international assistance to Afghanistan would no longer be available if any unconstitutional grab for power was made by the contenders for the office of the country’s president worked in the end as a political deal was cut to audit the more than 8 million votes cast in the disputed Afghan presidential election.
The warning was in particular directed at the former foreign minister Dr Abdullah and the deal primarily appeased him as he had contested the outcome of the run-off vote held on June 14 in which his rival Dr Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, who once served at the World Bank and was a US citizen until he had to give it up to be able to contest the Afghanistan’s presidential election, led with 56.4 percent of the vote.
Abdullah had won the first round of the presidential election on April 5 with nearly 45 percent of the vote, but could get 43 percent only in the second and final round. He had unilaterally declared his victory after rejecting the preliminary results of the run-off vote. Some of his prominent supporters, including the Balkh province Governor Atta Mohammad Noor, went a step further and threatened to give a call for “civil disobedience” and set up a parallel government.
It alarmed the US and in an unprecedented move President Barack Obama phoned the two candidates to advise restraint and personally delivered the warning that any pre-emptive move to capture power unconstitutionally would not be acceptable. He also informed Dr Ashraf Ghani and Dr Abdullah that he was sending Foreign Secretary John Kerry to Kabul to defuse the situation and mediate a solution to the dispute.
Kerry spent 44 hours in Kabul meeting the two candidates, President Hamid Karzai and the UN and Afghan electoral officials to work out a deal. It was unusual for a senior visiting US official to spend so much time in Afghanistan as they normally come to the war-ravaged country unannounced and leave without staying for the night.
A contentious election and the prospect of an Afghan president lacking legitimacy and credibility would have dealt a blow to the painstaking and costly US-led Western efforts over the past more than 12 years to build a democratic Afghanistan as a counterweight to Taliban’s Islamic emirate and prevent it from falling into the hands of al-Qaeda-linked militants again.
However, clinching the deal wasn’t easy as the two opposing camps had taken rigid positions while claiming victory. Implementing the agreement to the satisfaction of all the stakeholders won’t be easy either as they have different expectations from recounting of the 8.1 million votes and the transparency of the polls. It would require persistent US engagement and patience as it alone has the kind of leverage necessary to push the contenders for power to abide by constitutional means and accept the decisions of the Independent Election Commission (IEC) and the Electoral Complaints Commission (EEC), the two institutions facing criticism for being unable to ensure free, fair and transparent elections. The US certainly has enough leverage as it is the biggest donor to Afghanistan and its security assistance is critical to sustain the Afghan government in power.
There were two parts of the deal, but the second would become viable if the first part to recount every single vote cast is completed without getting derailed on the way and the two candidates accept the outcome of the recounting.
It would be an internationally backed effort under UN supervision requiring a huge logistics effort. The ballot boxes had to be brought to the capital, Kabul, under strict supervision from the 34 provinces and counted again at the IEC. The process has already started in presence of representatives of the two candidates and Afghan and international observers. Different timeframes for accomplishing this task were mentioned ranging from a month to several weeks. However, it soon became obvious that the inauguration ceremony of the newly elected president scheduled to be held on August 2 would have to be postponed.
In fact, the presidential candidates publicly requested President Karzai, who was accused by Dr Abdullah of favouring Dr Ashraf Ghani, to postpone the swearing-in ceremony. After ruling the country for more than 12 years, Karzai would get to stay in office for some more time. To his credit though, he made no effort to prolong his rule by amending the constitution that barred him from running for the office for a third term despite suspicions voiced by his political opponents.
The second part of the deal is even more ambitious as it envisages a unity government in which both the winner and loser in the presidential election would share power. The recounting of the votes would establish as to who won the run-off vote and the winner would be within his right to claim the office of the president. However, the loser would get a consolation prize in the shape of a share in power so that all stakeholders and power-brokers become part of the unity government.
The idea is to give a stake in the new government to the majority ethnic group, Pakhtuns, represented primarily by Dr Ashraf Ghani and his Uzbek allies led by Abdur Rasheed Dostum, and the Tajiks, whose representative is Dr Abdullah aligned with the Hazara Shia warlord-turned-politician Mohammad Mohaqqiq. Dr Ashraf Ghani could well become the next president and the office of prime minister could be created and given to Dr Abdullah.
The fears with regard to the possibility of a civil war or even a division of Afghanistan on ethnic lines as a resulted of the disputed presidential election were largely misplaced and exaggerated. There cannot be a large number of Afghans willing to fight and lay down their lives for Dr Ashraf Ghani, who remained outside Afghanistan when its people were fighting against the Soviet occupying forces, or Dr Abdullah, who is a divisive figure as someone primarily representing ethnic Tajiks.
An overwhelming majority of Afghans are against the division of their homeland. Also, they don’t have many expectations from the politicians, including Dr Ashraf Ghani and Dr Abdullah who have been part of the Karzai-led ruling dispensation in the recent past.
Though the standoff concerning the presidential election has been overcome, the political crisis in Afghanistan is not yet over. The first major hurdle to be crossed is the vote recounting and the whole election process would become doubtful if fraud is detected and a large number of votes are declared invalid.
In case the two candidates are persuaded by the US and UN to accept the results of the recount, the next part of the deal would have to be quickly implemented to bring changes in the system of government and give share in power to both of them. Power-sharing won’t be a smooth affair and would need constant US oversight to make it work.