The deal brokered last month by US Secretary of State John Kerry to end the election deadlock is a troubling sign for Afghanistan’s future. While some hail the agreement as a much-needed foreign policy victory for the Obama administration, it is an ominous sign for the future of Afghan politics.
That an international interlocutor was needed to mediate the burgeoning crisis is deeply disquieting. The inability of any organic government institution, including Afghanistan’s Supreme Court, its current president, the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), the Independent Electoral Complaints Commission (IECC) or even the legislature to reconcile both sides exposes the fragility of democratic institutions and the rule of law.
Future US policy and aid must prioritize development of Afghan social and political institutions.
What will happen if the 2019 presidential election faces a similar outcome, when the United States has far less leverage as it will have exercised the “zero option” in 2016?
The new audit is outside of the legally established framework for conducting elections the candidates endorsed prior to the campaign. The agreed process was to have an election on April 5. Because neither candidate secured at least 50 percent of the vote, a run-off was scheduled. As in the first round of voting, in the aftermath of the July 5 run-off, claims of fraud were evaluated by the IECC.
The necessity of American diplomatic intervention to ensure the IECC properly investigated claims of fraud means the IECC is either incapable of providing proper oversight of elections or that it is rife with corruption itself.
While both candidates agreed to conduct a new audit, a formal framework detailing its process was not included in the deal. Predictably, both candidates have objected to the process of how votes are audited leading to costly delays. And since the audit is outside of the legally established process, there is nothing to prevent either candidate from rejecting the results claiming it lacks legal standing and legitimacy.
Kerry’s persuasion of Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani to collaborate on a “national unity government,” which was immediately interpreted differently by the two camps, regardless of the results of the audit, was perhaps the only way to prevent the crisis from escalation. But suggestions that the loser may be slated to become the prime minister are quite concerning. Such power-sharing arrangements have a dangerous precedent in Afghanistan’s recent history.
The bloody struggle between Hafizullah Amin and Nur Mohammed Taraki over control of executive power after the Sauer Revolution was the catalyst for Soviet military intervention. After the Mujahideen deposed Mohammed Najibullah, the framework for the formation of a unified government outlined in the Peshawar Agreement quickly dissolved as the commanders vied for power.
A different governmental structure may be necessary; perhaps a parliamentary system is better suited. However, changes in government to appease the loser of a presidential election will set a dangerous precedent. And since this agreement has no legal or constitutional grounds, there is nothing to hold the winner to its implementation.
This is not to criticize Kerry’s efforts; indeed his diplomatic skills were instrumental to prevent a burgeoning crisis by dissuading Abdullah from forming a parallel government. However, the Afghan experiment with democracy ultimately has to be conducted by Afghans, and as this election has proved, they still have a ways to go.
As the administration withdraws US forces from Afghanistan, it should consider the political impacts that a complete withdrawal had on Iraq. A key component to reversing the violence during the surge was the political and security guarantee that American forces provided for the Sunni minority.
However in their absence, as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki gradually marginalized Sunni leaders in the government and the military, they began to see his increasingly sectarian government as a bigger threat than extremists like the Islamic State, leading to the current crisis.
American forces can act as the glue that keeps Afghanistan’s political rivals together while government institutions and civil society continue to take root. Without the continued US military presence, Afghanistan could experience the same political unraveling as has Iraq.
And while continued mentorship and training are crucial to the success of the Afghan National Security Forces, equally important is a robust State Department presence to provide local bureaucrats and politicians the same level of mentorship that has been given to Afghan’s military leaders.
The US should tie future economic and military aid to defined political milestones and goals, such as the successful execution of 2015 parliamentary elections and the 2019 presidential election; reforms to the IEC and IECC to reduce corruption; and revision of the electoral law to ensure free, fair and transparent elections accepted by candidates.
But above all, Afghanistan’s key power brokers must commit to working within the legal framework they have developed over the last decade to resolve political disputes. The ultimate winner of the election needs to form a pluralistic government inclusive of all Afghans; not one dominated by ethnic, familial or tribal connections. Patronage politics is unlikely to end anytime soon, but the election’s winner can chart a course toward a more effective government by awarding ministerial positions based on competency and merit on an equal footing to political clout.
Perhaps the most powerful and important individual in the current political landscape will be the election’s loser. Accepting the loss by declaring confidence in the process and support for the victor will determine future stability. Resorting to extra-legal means or violence to retain power will lead Afghanistan down a dark path all too familiar in its recent history. Afghans have sacrificed too much for too long to accept such a fate. ■
McBride is a graduate of the Edmund Walsh School of Foreign Service and a Booz Allen Hamilton management consultant at the Department of Defense. These are his views alone.