The South Asia Channel

Averting Disaster in Afghanistan

Neither the United States nor the Afghans have learned from past mistakes thus far.  Unless they consider some lessons learned immediately, the political crisis that will follow the announcement of the election in the coming days can turn violent quickly.  With a deteriorating situation in Iraq taking center stage in Western media coverage, it is not surprising that the Afghan runoff election fiasco is not getting much air time; but, the situation in Afghanistan is no less dangerous than Iraq or anything short of a countdown to civil war.

The 2009 Election Mistakes Coming Back to Haunt Us

In 2009, the international community looked the other way, allowing corruption allegations to go unanswered and, in effect, endorsed a controversial outcome in the name of "national unity." With the runoff election results contested in 2014, the U.S.-led Coalition should not push for an expedient but unmanageable solution that overlooks egregious mismanagement of the election process paid for by the international community and massive fraud allegations that threaten the legitimacy and viability of a follow-on government.

The 2009 elections demonstrated how the international community could become complicit in monitoring massive voter fraud.  The United Nations Assistance Mission Afghanistan (UNAMA) deputy, Peter Galbraith, called the election a "foreseeable train wreck" and thought that the U.N. should investigate allegations that one in three votes cast for President Karzai were fraudulent.  Galbraith was sacked for his criticism of the UNAMA boss Kai Eide.  Perhaps his lack of loyalty to the Chief of the UNAMA mission justified his dismissal.  However, the U.N.'s refusal to investigate what Galbraith alleged damaged its credibility in Afghanistan for years. 

For example, Galbraith argued that Eide "had deliberately downplayed the level of cheating in an election where in one region 10 times as many votes were recorded as voters actually cast."  Eide later admitted that there widespread fraud but not sufficient to question the legitimacy of the election.  Many saw Eide's intervention and Galbraith's dismissal as an attempt by the international community to minimize controversy by quickly affirming Karzai's win. Current presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah went so far as to accuse Eide of "giving a green card for fraud to determine the outcome of the election."

The 2009 elections left the Obama administration and its international partners saddled with an Afghan government of questionable legitimacy.  At the same time, with his ego wounded, President Karzai thought that the West had plotted to remove him but fell short.  From the U.S. perspective, Karzai's government was corrupt and the Afghan President was an unstable and unreliable partner.  Although some in the Obama administration thought that Karzai could be managed, he proved them wrong: Karzai became a thorn in Obama's side at almost every opportunity.  This passive aggressive-like engagement between the United States and the Afghan President dampened, among other operational efforts, the effect of a large surge of international troops and a massive influx of development funds.

On the Path to Repeat Mistakes: the 2014 Election Fiasco

In recent days, Afghan presidential contender Ashraf Ghani's campaign team has claimed victory with a margin of over 1.3 million votes ahead of Abdullah.  Abdullah, the leading candidate in the first round of elections with nearly  15 percent more votes ahead of Ghani, has withdrawn from the political process amidst allegations of "industrial level fraud."

For his part, President Karzai started laying the foundations to the 2014 election fraud back in 2010 when, while the Afghan parliament was in recess, Karzai "unilaterally took control of the country's top electoral watchdog" -- the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) -- in an effort to "Afghanise" it.  As late as December 2013, the international community knew that there were over 19 million voter registration cards in circulation even though there were only 11 million registered voters, but did not feel compelled  to act.It is important to highlight, however, the fact that there has been fraud in this election is no surprise to most credible analysts.  But the level of fraud is so significant and surprisingly efficient, that it has surprised even the most cynical pundits, pointing to perhaps a widespread use of the Afghan election instruments (i.e. the Independent Election Commission, or IEC, and the ECC) to facilitate this fraud.

For example, in Khost Province, initial IEC results suggest that more than 400,000 voters cast ballots in the runoff, up from 113,000 in the first round.  Arguments that there was a bigger turnout in the eastern Provinces may in fact be true, but that explanation for such a vast boost in numbers seems insufficient considering that, according to the Central Statistics Office, Khost's entire population is closer to 550,000 -- with children making up at least a third of that figure. According to the Wall Street Journal, "390,000 voters cast their ballots...up from 180,000" in Paktika Province even though, according to the same Central Statistics Office data, the province's population is 414,000.

Earlier in the week, Abdullah's team agreed with the U.N.'s request to reengage with the IEC, offering a 13-point letter outlining his demands that were intended to "mitigate the alleged fraud." The IEC rejected Abdullah's demands, in similar fashion to Karzai's rejection of Abdullah's requests for electoral reforms prior to a 2009 runoff election.   Today, Abdullah's team revised their demands and narrowed them further - but the IEC has rejected again.

Much like the 2009 election, the Afghan political process is once again becoming a "foreseeable train wreck" in 2014.   But, unlike the 2009 elections, Abdullah's team is not showing any indications of willingness to compromise with what amounts to accepting that he lost the elections.  Without a similar swerve at the last minute to avert a disasterous head-on collision, the 2014 political crisis is unlikely to be resolved without a coordinated and well-considered intervention by the international community.  And, yet, the West is looking on from the sidelines passively bracing for whatever comes next.  In what amounts to the most stern warning, the U.N. released the following statement: "With the utmost concern, the U.N. Mission notes that appeals to circumvent or abandon the legal process and framework and appeal directly to supporters could incite violence (and)... strongly urges the candidates to take all steps necessary to control their supporters to prevent them from making any irresponsible statements and from taking steps that could lead to civil disorder and instability."

What's Next?  The Road to Civil Unrest and Course Correction

The IEC's intention to delay the announcement the results of the election on July 2nd for a few days is a good start but not enough to avert disaster.  The situation in Afghanistan will likely not slip to Civil War overnight, as some have argued.   But, announcing the results, regardless of the fact that Abdullah's team is no longer participating in the election process, will bring this crisis to an impasse that will be hard to recover from. Already, the rumors in Kabul and Washington, D.C. alike are that Ghani has a massive lead over Abdullah.  Some western colleagues believe that the situation will be resolved in one of three ways:  the IEC makes some accommodations to Abdullah; the Abdullah-Ghani camps agree to some power sharing agreement; or that somehow Abdullah accepts Ghani's ‘claim to the throne' due to a lack of options -- a ‘check-mate' move, if you will.

My assessment is that none of these will come true and that we are facing an imminent power vacuum in Afghanistan that can be filled by only the candidate with the most influence, might, and strength of the popular mandate.  This is based on the basic principle of making sure that the allegations of fraud are addressed properly.  If the international community fails to hold the Afghan government to account, whether or not the Afghan population respects the election results relies less on the IEC announcement and more on the reaction to the demonstrations that will follow.  Also, as unpopular as this may seem to the western audience, Karzai's executive powers only go so far as long as the Afghan government -- and particularly the security forces -- allows him the prerogative to exercise them.  Put another way, if the Afghan Cabinet, Parliament, and most importantly the security services consider the actions of the IEC and ECC to be illegitimate. Karzai is more likely to be detained than pass the reins to the next President peacefully.

For instance, think of the situation that is unfolding in northern portion of Helmand Province.  The Taliban are attacking en masse and the Afghan Army and Police have taken heavy casualties.  Some, like an Afghan official who requested that he remain anonymous, have raised the question of whether or not the Afghan National Army -- which is largely representative of Afghans from the North -- would continue to fight and sacrifice in the South and East if they believe that the allegations of fraud were not investigated and addressed properly. Whether the election fraud, or its pervasiveness, is real or perceived will no longer matter if the IEC rushes to announce the result of the vote before the Afghan government adequately addresses the egregious allegations of irregularities.  In other words, if the election fraud allegations are not addressed properly, there is a serious danger that the announcement of the new President-elect may be considered unrepresentative of the will of the Afghan voters and that the Afghan National Security Forces stop supporting the Kabul leadership.  If this happens, most of the security gains that followed the 2009 Coalition surge would be lost in a matter of months.

Also, Western capitals should not overlook the fact that both Ghani and Abdullah have constituencies and supporters that may not be open to compromise.  Afghans are pragmatic and respect power, but even if the Kabul political discussions remain civil, in the countryside, the likelihood that different groups that come to power soon will exact revenge on those who enjoyed power in the past is high.  And, if history serves as an example, those who strike first tend to have the advantage.  As such, without a major Western political intervention to avert disaster, the Afghan "traditional" solutions tend to extremes; perhaps proving the Western narrative that celebrated this election as the first peaceful transition of power false.

Certainly, whoever becomes the next Afghan President will need economic and military support from the West.  This gives the international community some leverage to push for a peaceful solution to the evolving crisis neither camp can afford to alienate the Western donors by allowing this situation to get out of control.  But, just to be absolutely clear, neither the Afghans nor the Western Coalition is well served in the move towards expediency in announcing the election results "on time" with only a veil of legitimacy. It will result in bloodshed and perhaps the end of the current Afghan government as we know it.

The Afghans who may see as the only option as the seizing of power should not forget that, after the Soviet Union withdrew its military and financial aid to Afghanistan, Mohammad Najibullah Ahmadzai's Communist Government did not last long on his own.  Without fuel, the Afghan Air Force was grounded immediately, the Army started deserting in great numbers, and within four months, Najibullah was forced to resign and tried to flee Kabul.  

Karzai should also take stock in the fact that neither the U.N. nor anyone else was able to save Najibullah once his foreign allies and the Afghan people abandoned him.  A few months prior to his gruesome execution, reflecting on the translation of Peter Hopkirk's book The Great Game, Najibullah mentioned to a visitor: "Afghans keep making the same mistake." In the end, however, Najibullah died after being castrated, dragged behind a car, and hung a few hundred meters from where Karzai's residence is today.

For starters, the West can avert this repeating this disaster by delaying the IEC announcement until after the allegations of massive fraud are addressed.  Ambassador Dobbins' warning is absolutely crucial:  "Premature or undocumented allegations of fraud are as dangerous as fraud itself."  At the same time, Abdullah's team needs to make all concrete evidence of fraud -- such as tapes, CDs, and video --available for the international community and Afghan officials to consider; but the international community must hold the Afghan government accountable if the allegations prove true; the culprits must be prosecuted.  Furthermore, the United States in particular must remain open to the idea that a new runoff election may be needed- with international observers - if the fraud is truly that prevalent and pervasive.   This may require a caretaker government because, if the election was rigged to that extent, no doubt the state apparatus under Karzai was complicit and no longer trustworthy to conduct another round of elections.

These measures are extraordinary considering the donor fatigue and the other emergencies that the United States has to contend with at this moment -- Iraq and Syria are at the top of the list.  But if the United States does not take an active role to avert disaster in Afghanistan, it must be prepared to deal with and support the winner of the power struggle in order to preclude the Taliban and al Qaeda from taking advantage of the violent adjustment period that will take follow in the absence of extraordinary leadership.  Anything short of these two admittedly horrible but realistic options will mean that the enormous sacrifices that the Coalition and Afghans have had to endure over the past thirteen years would have been for nothing.  

Ioannis Koskinas was a military officer for over twenty years and now focuses on economic development projects and risk analysis in Central Asia and Middle East.