It is interesting to guess as to who would have the last laugh in the falling apart political transition of Afghanistan: pay master John Kerry, over ambitious Abdullah, dark horse Ashraf Ghani, or force in being the Taliban. In a fire fighting pursuit, John Kerry was able to work out a truce between Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani to become partners-in-grabbing whatever is left of Afghan state, society and treasure. If history is a guide, in Afghan culture such patch-ups are quick to come by and quicker to evaporate. Just days after Kerry brokered an arrangement to end the crisis, the deal has run into trouble because of disagreements among the two rival presidential candidates.
Agreement was intended to resolve an impasse that had threatened to split the country. But implementation of the deal was held up due to confusion over whether Afghan or international institutions will lead the inspection of the 8.1 million votes cast during the runoff round; the recount has, however, begun. Audit is an arduous task with embedded fault-lines. Earlier results had put Ashraf Ghani in the lead by about a million votes; this tally is fiercely disputed by Abdullah and also questioned by independent observers.
An ambitious deal to recount the votes and form a national unity government was clinched after marathon tripartite talks. Before rushing to Kabul on July 11, Kerry had said that the US had “enormous concerns” about Afghanistan. When Abdullah announced his intention to declare a parallel government if his demands for auditing his rival’s ballots were not met, President Barack Obama called and warned him against violence and “extra-constitutional measures”.
Since the fall of the Taliban government and massive international intervention, Afghans have been on a roller coaster ride, at times rising to the heights of an ideal democracy and at others, lowered to survivalist war-time politics and tribal tactics. Abdullah’s threats had already gone beyond rhetoric to a plan of action. Some of Abdullah’s backers were preparing to take over the centers of the government in at least three provinces, and occupy the presidential palace. Obama warned Abdullah not to even consider seizing power this way.
“Our commanders say we do not need the palace key from the Election Commission, we can go and take it ourselves,” said Fazal Ahmad Manawi, a former Supreme Court judge and an election adviser to Dr Abdullah. “If Dr Abdullah had said yes, several provinces including the palace would have fallen into the hands of his team,” he added.
From the start, election observers knew there were signs of large-scale fraud. After troubling reports from the first round of voting in April, things sharply escalated on the day of runoff. Election commission announced of seven million polled votes that day, it was far higher than expected. Abdullah pressed accusations of systemic election fraud, in which millions of false ballots had been arranged in a conspiracy. Abdullah began unveiling evidence, including audio recordings of phone calls. The Independent Election Commission announced preliminary results for the runoff, even as the candidates were still negotiating with the United Nations on a broader investigation of fraudulent ballots.
As Abdullah’s supporters began agitating for action, he tried to calm his supporters; he also insisted that he would be found the rightful winner of the election. And he reserved the right to unilaterally declare a government if talks with Kerry did not satisfactorily address his accusations of fraud. This indicates that Afghanistan after four decades of foreign invasions and civil war is totally dismantled, socially and politically. The euphoria over a US brokered deal was a sign of how close some people believe the country came to a split along ethnic lines that could quickly turn violent. The speed at which that relief has evaporated suggests the political crisis is not over yet; it may be at formative stage.
Main features of Kerry brokered deal were: total audit of votes, a sweeping plan to change the shape of the government over the next few years and to agree on a unity government in the shorter term after the results of the audit are announced. The winner will become president, and the runner-up, or somebody he nominates, will become a chief executive running the government. The security ministries will remain as they were for the first three months. The chief executive will serve for two years and the constitution will be amended to create an empowered prime minister post. The two election commissions will also be reformed.
The solution that pacified both parties, at least for now, is an ambitious one. The UN supervised recount of all cast votes is designed to count off fake votes and soften the blow for the losing candidate by introducing the idea of a unity government in which there would be both a president and a prime minister. Vote audit is a mammoth task that could take weeks. UN special representative for Afghanistan Jan Kubis has asked for a month’s delay to the inauguration of a new president.
Abdullah’s allies, largely drawn from the Tajik minority, have said they will not necessarily accept the outcome of a recount if it goes the same way as the preliminary tally. Mohammad Khan, Abdullah’s first vice president, said if there were signs of further fraud, or if the camp was not satisfied by the findings of the Independent Election Commission, the result would be unacceptable. “If we find any sign of fraud … we will not accept the results. It’s too early to say what our next plan is.” Even if Abdullah accepted the recount, he may not be able to control all of his supporters. In Afghanistan, where ethnic divisions run deep, political disputes can quickly descend into chaos. After the deal, Abdullah and Ghani have visited each other’s homes in Kabul to map out the future course of action. They have discussed a national unity government that would include representatives of the losing camp.
Abdullah has commented that his country was on the verge of a “very serious, serious situation” before he struck a US brokered deal with his rival to avert the crisis by holding a fully audited vote count. That was the key for us because “the legitimacy of the future government of Afghanistan is important…Then there is framework for cooperation between both sides in political terms — based on the agendas for reform for good governance, for strengthening the national unity …Hopefully everything will stay in the right track.” he said. The formula for the national unity government still needs to be worked out. Eventually, a constitutional grand council, or Loya Jirga shall be formed, that could see Afghanistan switch to a parliamentary form of government with both a president and a prime minister. Abdullah said it has taken Afghanistan 13 years to reach a stage in nation-building that is still “a mess.” The devil lies in details convergence of a power sharing formula may not be easy to come by.
Afghanistan’s serious security challenges were underscored yet again when a suicide car bomb exploded in Paktia province in a busy market. Officials reported at least 89 killed, which makes it the largest single suicide attack since 2001. And as the vote audit began, Kabul airport came under Taliban attack. This is the sad reality of Afghanistan’s security and stability. It doesn’t take rocket science to predict as to who would have the last laugh in Afghanistan!
The Nation, July 21, 2014.
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