The South Asia Channel

In Afghanistan, Third Round of Elections or Coup

On July 7, Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission (IEC) announced the preliminary results of the country's presidential election. According to the IEC's chairman, Ashraf Ghani received 56.44 percent of the votes in the June 14 runoff; he had placed second during the first round of elections, with 31.56 percent. His opponent, Abdullah Abdullah, who fell just short of an outright majority in the first round with 45.00 percent, only received 43.56 percent in the runoff.

The fact is that although the magnitude and scope of the fraud is unclear thus far, the integrity of the election has been tainted beyond repair. This has caused some, including Abdullah's vice presidential running mate, Mohammad Mohaqiq, to describe the preliminary results as a "coup" against voters. Election observers have already noted that the number of votes cast in the runoff was not anywhere close to the 8.1 million quoted by the IEC; nor have they accepted the notion that 37.6 percent of that number reflects votes of women.

When he announced the preliminary results, IEC Chairman Ahmad Yousaf Nuristani confirmed the fraud and vote rigging, saying: "We cannot ignore the technical problems and fraud during the election process. Some governors and government officials were involved in fraud." In his July 7 press conference, Nuristani promised a more thorough investigation prior to the announcement of the final results on July 22.

Thus far, however, President Hamid Karzai's government and the IEC have failed to investigate specific assertions of fraud, and Nuristani's promises of renewed scrutiny are no longer sufficient to satiate frustrations. Although Abdullah's camp has provided recordings that, at best, allege irregularities and, at worse, implicate the chief elections officer, Zia-ul-Haq Amarkhail, and Wardak Governor Attaullah Khogyani, the IEC has refused to aggressively pursue such leads. To his credit, Ghani has indicated that he would agree to an audit of 7,100 polling places. This review of more than 3 million ballots, however, may not be sufficient if it does not specifically target the areas that Abdullah's team alleges were heavily influenced by fraud.

Further complicating matters, by failing to delay the election results announcements until the seemingly "industrial-scale fraud" (as one of Abdullah's campaign officials put it) had been thoroughly investigated, the IEC has put Afghanistan on the verge of civil war. This crisis can still be averted, but time is running out. The basic choices are: investigate the fraudulent elections properly -- which will likely amount to a brand-new election -- or face a popular uprising and, perhaps, civil war.

Ironically, Abdullah's disappointment over the alleged fraudulent elections appears comparable to the nightmare scenario unfolding for Ghani. No doubt, Ghani's campaign went into high gear prior to the runoff. He is a skilled orator and brilliant strategist, and, as undoubtedly one of the brightest Afghans, he is immensely popular. As such, the uproar over the preliminary results is less a reflection of his capabilities and capacity to lead and more about the IEC's either epically mismanaged election or complicity in what amounts to a carefully crafted and meticulously organized fraudulent election. Even if he won the election, Karzai's scheming and propensity for fraud may have cost Ghani the presidency.

While Ghani has welcomed the results of the election and made it clear that further audits will not be acceptable, Abdullah has said that his team will not accept the results and has declared himself the winner of the Afghan election. Abdullah declared: "From today, we announce that only the government elected through clean votes will come to power." Flanked by a number of influential governors, regional power brokers, and a slew of former competitors turned supporters, Abdullah asked his supporters to give him a few more days to decide the next steps. Perhaps he wants to give the West one more chance to help resolve the fraud allegations.

If this pans out, the United States -- along with the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) -- should place monitors inside the Election Complaints Commission in order to investigate election-related irregularities. Additionally, the IEC should withhold announcement of the final results of the election until the fraud investigation concludes. Although it will not guarantee success by itself, the requirement for international observers to participate must be part of any solution forward. Already, Abdullah's team has made it clear that it would accept any solution that does not include international impartial observers participating in the fraud investigations.

Although a hard pill to swallow, the international community must be prepared to consider another runoff, with a heavy emphasis on election monitoring. The third round should take place in six weeks, not six months. No doubt, it will be expensive for both the international community and the presidential candidates, and it will be full of logistical challenges. Also, it would require an influx of international observers and, if necessary, delay the withdrawal of coalition forces so that they can support the election monitoring as much as possible. But fears over the price tag for the election or concern that it would disrupt the withdrawal timeline are petty considerations in comparison with a coup and a potential for violence that puts the entire mission in Afghanistan at risk.

Coup against voters vs. coup against the government

Abdullah's advisors are calling on him to form a parallel government. Mohaqiq and Balkh Governor Atta Mohammad Noor have argued that the fraud committed during the runoff election amounts to a "coup" against voters and thus gives Abdullah the right to form a parallel government. Preemptively, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry issued a warning that "any action to take power by extra-legal means will cost Afghanistan the financial and security support of the United States and the international community." Kerry, who helped resolve the 2009 election crisis brought about by allegations of fraud, is on his way back to Kabul this week.

Kerry's warning serves as a stark reminder that U.S. support to Afghanistan is both fragile and conditional. But, some Afghans have argued that Kerry's warning should be more balanced by also making the case that unless voter fraud is investigated thoroughly, financial and security support would be withdrawn as well. In other words, if the United States draws yet another foreign-policy red line on extralegal means of taking power, neither the use of force nor the use of a fraudulent voting scheme should be permitted to take place.

While a coup that topples the Afghan government and the election process may deserve a severe response from the United States and the international community, Western donors need to consider a similar punishment to the Afghan government if it turns a blind eye to the allegations of a rigged election. Pressure must be applied to both "coup" options. Neither the votes nor the government should be hijacked by extralegal means.

Ambassador James Dobbins, U.S. senior representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, is pushing for a coalition government. In recent remarks at an Asia Society event, he said: "I think that some degree of patronage allocation and power sharing is going to be essential for a new government to be formed that retains the support of all elements of a society" and warned that "a winner-take-all system" in Afghanistan is not a "workable solution."

This compromise may make sense in Washington, D.C., but it makes no sense in Afghanistan. Both candidates think they won. Any compromise reflects their willingness to accept the loser into the winner's fold. Abdullah's team has made it clear that it is prepared to take extreme measures rather than accept the results of a fraudulent election. Ghani's conciliatory tone in his press conferences should not be misinterpreted as willingness to concede power. As such, if Kerry is coming to Kabul with the intention to push for this option, I fear that he will be disappointed.

The international community, led by the United States, has spent an enormous amount of money and sacrificed nearly 3,500 military members in Afghanistan since 2001. Coalition sacrifices gave Afghanistan a chance to develop a nascent, though certainly imperfect, democracy that is both embraced and cherished by the Afghan people. The integrity of each citizen's vote reflects perhaps the most basic of democratic principles. This ideal gave Afghans strength and purpose in defying threats and dangers in order to vote in the 2014 elections in great numbers. Making each vote count and defending the integrity of the election process is an important step toward rejection of both "ethnic supremacy" and "jihadi dividend" arguments as well as a preventive strike against fundamentalism and sectarian tensions that are tearing apart post-conflict Iraq. Afghanistan may need money to sustain its economy, but it needs democracy to sustain its people.

If the election fraud-elated recordings presented thus far serve as any indication, some Afghans deserve going to jail. They are a bigger threat to the viability of an Afghan state than the Taliban, yet Karzai's government has done little and has ignored demands for a thorough investigation. The insurgents use poor governance and such examples of corruption to leverage support for their movement.

In the end, if Kerry and the rest of the U.S. administration think that some last-minute diplomacy that endorses a controversial outcome in the name of national unity is the right choice, they are sadly mistaken. During his press conference, Abdullah made it clear that he will not back down like he did in 2009. "I assure the people of Afghanistan that I will sacrifice for you, but I will never accept a fraudulent government," Abdullah affirmed. He added: "I would not trade the whole world for a single vote of yours." The United States has the power and the responsibility to avert disaster in Afghanistan. Failing to address the fraudulent elections properly is a failure of America's commitment to the democratic values it promotes worldwide.

This year, the United States and much of the coalition supporting the international mission in Afghanistan commemorated the 70th anniversary of D-Day, the invasion of France in 1944. President Ronald Reagan, on the 40th anniversary of D-Day, uttered the immortal words: "Our armies are here for only one purpose -- to protect and defend democracy.… We in America have learned bitter lessons from two world wars: It is better to be here ready to protect the peace than to take blind shelter across the sea, rushing to respond only after freedom is lost." The United States and its allies must defend the freedom and rights of Afghan voters or, in failing to do so, face the ultimate failure in the coalition mission in Afghanistan, as the country spirals to civil war.

Ioannis Koskinas was a military officer for over 20 years and now focuses on economic development projects and risk analysis in Central Asia and Middle East.

Photo by SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images