The two men competing for the top slot of leading Afghanistan are not altogether different. They are pro-Western. They share largely the same political vision of a stable Afghanistan with a focus on building domestic economies. They both endorse a strategic partnership with the United States.
But as the dispute between Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani over the legitimacy of election results deepens, their brinksmanship may backfire, because the vote meant to signal Afghanistan's next chapter of nationhood is becoming a potentially destabilizing event. The victor is expected to sign a long-term security agreement with the United States. Without it, the aid that keeps Afghanistan afloat will stop flowing, allowing the Taliban to rise again. And Abdullah, who draws wide support from the ethnic Tajik population, has been alarming the U.S. with talk of a parallel government, which would prompt Washington to pull the plug on the billions of dollars Afghanistan desperately needs to maintain its economy and its security forces.
“We made clear that the United States and its partners are not in a position to support a divided Afghanistan,” Ambassador James Dobbins said in an interview with the BBC on Tuesday. “That any effort to establish a parallel presidency would make it impossible for the United States and its partners to continue their financial, economic and military support, and that the consequences for the country would be potentially quite dire.”
The possibility of a breakaway Tajik security force, combined with the news of a takeover of some Kabul police stations by people loyal to Abdullah, prompted President Barack Obama to call Abdullah and Ghani, and caution “in particular Dr. Abdullah about moving pre-emptively in an unconstitutional fashion,” Dobbins said in remarks Wednesday.
Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Afghanistan early Friday for hastily arranged meetings to address the crisis. "We are in a very, very critical moment for Afghanistan," Kerry told reporters after meeting the U.N. chief in Afghanistan, Jan Kubis. "Legitimacy hangs in the balance. The future potential of the transition hangs in the balance. So we've a lot of work to do."
Afghanistan cannot afford its own army, critical for keeping the Taliban at bay. The United States and its international partners are on the hook for $5 billion in aid every year for several years to come, funds that are necessary for any kind of domestic economic investment. “The Army would stop getting paid, the police would stop getting paid, schools would close, clinics would close, electricity would be in debate and Afghanistan would have made a sudden detour back into the mid-1990s, which would be a great tragedy,” Dobbins said.
“Abdullah and Ghani both know this. They both understand the situation,” said Stephen Biddle, adjunct senior fellow for defense policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. “As reasonable people, they’ll need to be very careful with their brinksmanship. Nobody wants this to happen except the Taliban.”
The Taliban, said Biddle, cannot take major cities, but neither can Afghan government forces defeat them or drive them to reconciliation. “The war will grind on as long as the two sides stay funded,” he said. “The military needed to sustain a stalemate has to be paid for by outsiders.”
That funding in large part will continue once the new Afghan president signs the long-term security arrangement with the United States — which the outgoing president, Hamid Karzai, has refused to endorse.
“Ghani said within a week of taking office, after inauguration, he would sign it, Abdullah said he would sign it within a month,” said Eklil Hakimi, Afghanistan’s ambassador to the U.S. “I’m sure they know the importance of the BSA [Bilateral Security Agreement] for the security of Afghanistan, for our Afghan national security forces and the support we need for years to come.”
But all that is in jeopardy while the country is in electoral limbo. On Monday, the Independent Election Commission put Ghani more than a million votes ahead of Abdullah, with 56.44 percent of the vote.
In the past, both men have lost presidential campaigns to Karzai in hotly disputed contests, and neither is willing to back down on this first opportunity to take the reins now that Karzai is constitutionally prevented from running for another term. Karzai has been in power for 13 years, and the tantalizing possibility of being president for a similarly long time has made the candidates unwilling to abandon the chance of winning.
Abdullah in particular has been strident in his criticism of the electoral process, calling the results a “coup.” He runs a serious risk of inflaming his supporters to the point where even if he were to accept a loss in the final results on July 22, and look to take a position in a Ghani administration, they might not accept it.
Ghani, comfortable in his lead, has been urging patience and calm, rebuffing allegations of fraud and calling the second round of elections “a great success.”
“We accept these preliminary results … and we remain silent for the final results,” Ghani said. “We believe in maintaining and preserving stability and support, completing the process until the final results are revealed.”
Kerry, during his visit to Afghanistan, is expected to meet with both leaders and ask them to peaceably accept the final results, or risk the wrath of American lawmakers.
“I imagine the message he’s carrying is: ‘Let’s come up with some sort of process that you two can agree. We can’t stop the U.S. Congress from pulling the plug on it if you guys can’t,’” says Biddle. “Don’t think you can engage in some sort of self-interested struggle and not have the entire country fall apart very quickly.”
The irony is, both leaders are men the U.S. is ready to accept. Either candidate is a huge improvement over Karzai, who U.S. military officials and diplomats found increasingly difficult over time to consider a veritable partner in helping Afghanistan.
Informally, however, the U.S. is backing Ghani, said Parag Khanna, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. “He’s had American advisers around him, he has all the intellectual networks, I don’t think there’s any question who the U.S. would like to see in charge,” he said. “They’d like to see Abdullah there in some capacity because he has the loyalty of a large number of people, but he’s obviously nobody’s stooge.”
Unlike Ghani, a former American college professor and former World Bank official, Abdullah is a former tribal fighter. Yet he too has been spending time outside Afghanistan. After he lost to Karzai in 2009, Abdullah spent time in Western countries, visited global summits in Davos, sought advice from experts and developed his own set of Western consultants and advisers.
Afghanistan, perpetually teetering on the brink, was never really going to have full, free and fair elections anyway, given the inability of so many to even go to vote, said Afghanistan analyst Anand Gopal, the author of “No Good Men Among the Living.”
“You can’t run elections in a country where the government controls a portion of the country, warlords control another portion and the Taliban controls the rest,” Gopal said. “That’s why you have ghost votes. There’s no way to actually monitor the elections [in those areas], you have a lot of empty polling centers where officials have stuffed ballots.”
Ghani has constituents in those areas, as did Karzai, who also relied on fraud to win his last two elections, according to Gopal. “The question of popularity doesn’t even matter. There’s no other way to run elections in Afghanistan without massive fraud,” he said.
“Afghanistan has the challenge of having a constitution which is a winner-take-all constitution,” Dobbins said on Wednesday. “The president has an unusual array of powers, and the checks and balances on the president are much more limited than our own system, for instance, or in most others.”
Both Abdullah and Ghani agree right now that those stakes are worth fighting for. But they risk the collapse of the state they expect to lead if one of them doesn’t blink first.