Jim Bourg / Reuters

Kerry’s options for addressing Afghanistan’s political crisis

The U.S. should use its enormous leverage to seek a solution that both presidential contenders can agree on

July 11, 2014 12:15PM ET

As U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visits Kabul to help defuse electoral tensions in Afghanistan, here are a few points he should consider: First, the politics of the current crisis go well beyond simple allegations about stuffed ballot boxes or discussions about sore losers. Second, the problem is eminently soluble, and a stable and unified Afghanistan can still emerge from it. Third, he will be confronted with contradictory explanations of what went wrong but will need a solution that both candidates and their supporters will cooperate with.

The provisional results of the presidential runoff show a country that is highly polarized. This is even more significant than the allegations of fraud that cloud the results. From Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, 18 supported Ashraf Ghani and 16 supported Abdullah Abdullah. In 24 of the provinces, the margin of victory was more than 30 percent. The geography of the results can largely be explained by ethnicity. Provinces where ethnic Pashtuns or Uzbeks predominate voted for Ghani, while provinces dominated by Hazaras or Tajiks voted for Abdullah. Close results, as seen in the capital, Kabul, reflect a mixed population.

Despite claims of fraud, most votes in the count were genuine. In fact, the results are yet another evidence that the runoff election was based on ethnic mobilization. Afghan commentators typically deny that ethnicity plays a significant role in politics. An outsider who refers to ethnicity is apt to be castigated as a troublemaker. But this denial has resulted in a complete lack of transparency about the role of ethnicity in Afghan politics. Furthermore, it has been virtually impossible to discuss checks and balances or safeguards against exclusion of minorities that the U.S. government supported in other peace processes such as Northern Ireland. Even if the Afghan electoral process lacks such formal safeguards, any solution to the current crisis must avoid leaving Tajiks and Hazaras — two of Afghanistan’s four major ethnic groups — feeling permanently excluded from power.

Fraud and electoral rigging

The statements from prominent members of Abdullah’s team on July 7 following the announcement of preliminary results were more strongly worded than any Afghan political rhetoric since 2001. Ustad Mohaqiq, Abdullah’s running mate, has, over the past decade, been successful in mobilizing more votes than anyone else from the Shia and Hazara communities. In his speech last week, Mohaqiq made a carefully crafted formula: “Through the votes which they cast, our people have now given us the right to form a government.” This was intended as a threat to establish a parallel government even if the election commission declares Ghani the winner.

Like Mohaqiq, Ustad Atta was a resistance commander in the mountains during Taliban rule. Officially just a provincial governor appointed by President Hamid Karzai, but also a successful faction leader, power broker and businessman, Atta became one of the defining figures of post-2001 Afghanistan by building up his power base in the northern part of the country. In his speech Atta declared that, by orchestrating electoral rigging, Karzai had forfeited the right to rule, implying that Karzai should not be allowed to handpick his successor. To reinforce his assertion that Karzai lacks authority, in a subtle form of mutiny, Atta called on the security forces to preserve public order, protect government buildings and cooperate with the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force. In ratcheting up the political rhetoric but holding back from confrontation, the Abdullah campaign has deliberately left the door open for an accommodation. However, Mohaqiq’s and Atta’s statements underscore how the disputed election has broken the consensus through which the country has been governed for the last 13 years. Such realignment indicates that the crisis must indeed be taken seriously.

Kerry will receive completely contradictory messages on the issue of fraud. From Ghani’s supporters he will hear that they ran a well-thought-out campaign and had enough votes to clinch victory. They will also say that if there was fraud, it was on both sides. Ghani’s campaign does not object to some vote auditing but not to the extent that the recount will change or delay the outcome. It is convinced that Ghani is Afghanistan’s undisputed president-elect and should now be entrusted with the task of forming an inclusive government and implementing his reform agenda. By this account, the Abdullah camp are simply sore losers, which was to be expected since the team includes warlords and vested interests that fear losing their grip on power.

The good news is both sides are bidding to form a national government rather than to destabilize Afghanistan. If the U.S. chooses to use its leverage over the Afghan parties, it can bring them to an amicable deal.

From Abdullah’s supporters, Kerry will hear that the provisional results are the outcome of systematic rigging, organized by Karzai under the auspices of the election commission and select officials from the Afghan government. For this, they will present the inflated voter turnout during the runoff election as key evidence. Despite reports by local and international observers that attendance was actually down, the 8 million votes counted represent a 20 percent increase over the first round of votes. For example, in Khost province, where there were few observers due to security and which was one of the provinces Ghani carried with big margins, turnout was up 250 percent — an electoral miracle. But that is not all. To implicate the presidential palace, Abdullah’s campaign will point to telephone intercepts of Karzai-appointed commission staff planning the rigging.

The technical response to the crisis is a vote audit. But, despite the rhetoric about “clean” and “unclean” votes, no audit scheme can deliver an undisputed result. Auditors can only look at the records available and cannot examine whether real voters actually turned up to cast their ballots. The Ghani campaign insists it has enough evidence to prove the votes are legitimate, while Abdullah’s team seems convinced of widespread fraud. And both sides stand ready to challenge an unfavorable outcome.

In any case, apportioning blame will not help in reconciling the current dispute. But in order to play a constructive role in defusing the heightened tension, it is important to understand how things got this bad. Abdullah’s team holds Karzai squarely responsible. It claims that the outgoing president deliberately blocked attempts to clean up the election machinery after rigging of the 2009 vote and then directed election officials and his administration to deprive Abdullah of victory at all costs. 

Of the two contenders, Abdullah is under even more pressure to find direct evidence of government-orchestrated rigging. In the short term, he wants to gain sympathy for boycotting the results and potentially dissuade Kerry from pushing for the electoral process to continue to its inevitable conclusion with a bit of auditing, followed by the inauguration of President Ghani.

The good news is that both sides are bidding to form a national government rather than to destabilize Afghanistan. This offers cause for hope that the dispute can still be resolved amicably. Both sides know that the government in Kabul can survive only if it retains the support of the U.S. and international community. Even with fewer U.S. troops on the ground, stability in Afghanistan still matters. Kerry will first need to assure both sides that he has heard them and values them as friends and allies. But if the U.S. chooses to use its leverage over the Afghan parties, it can bring them to a deal in which millions of Afghans, from all of the country’s communities, feel they have a stake in the government.

Michael Semple is a visiting research professor at the Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation and Social Justice at Queen’s University in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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