The South Asia Channel

Kerry's Miracle

Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission's (IEC's) irresponsible announcement of the run-off presidential election's preliminary results on July 7 plunged the country into a crisis that nearly brought about a coup. No doubt, the 11th-hour intervention by the United States and the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) averted disaster in the near term. Although the threat of civil war still looms in the background, the Afghan presidential candidates are trying keep the rhetoric down and focus on substantive issues.

For their part, the international community must internalize the lessons learned from its complicity in nearly allowing the crisis to get to the point of no return. The United States, in particular, must apply two major lessons in its engagement with the Afghan government. First, the United States and its allies' failure to hold the Afghan government and political elites accountable for poor governance and election-related corruption since the 2009 election turned out to be a bigger threat to the integrity of the Afghan state than the ongoing insurgency. While the Taliban have not been able to bring down the Afghan government, the widespread "industrial-level" election fraud almost did. Second, Afghanistan's nascent democracy requires thoughtful, regular, and enduring U.S. engagement to nurture it. As Amb. Jan Kubiš, the U.N.'s senior diplomat in Kabul, told U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry: "You deliver miracles."

Although this miracle took less than 48 hours to materialize once the United States became involved, it was based on a spirit of cooperation and teamwork between the American and Afghan leaders that had developed over time, and had almost been extinguished due to a poor relationship between U.S. President Barack Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

Kerry's handling of the situation in Afghanistan last week was brilliant. Any compromise that was reached hinged on his ability to convince Abdullah Abdullah to rejoin the election process. After all, it was Abdullah's team that threatened to create a parallel government if the fraud wasn't properly addressed and boycotted the IEC process. Even in the days prior to Kerry's visit, reacting to Obama's intervention by phone, Abdullah demonstrated incredible strength in character and leadership by holding back his followers from following through with their threats. But Abdullah and his rival, Ashraf Ghani, were entrenched in their positions when Kerry landed in Kabul last Thursday.

Kerry, using phrases such as "I'm asking you as a friend to trust me" and "U.S. soldiers didn't come here to fight and die to see this election fail," was able to bring Abdullah closer to compromise. Ghani also demonstrated his leadership and commitment to a peaceful solution by agreeing to a full vote audit and to the formation of a "unity government" after the results had been reviewed.

While Kerry's herculean efforts and the goodwill currently emanating from the Abdullah and Ghani camps should not be minimized, it is important to realize that the crisis that took many by surprise has actually been developing for five years. And, all the current cooperation between contenders aside, most expect that the audit of the run-off election votes will demonstrate widespread fraud that could have been prevented if the West had taken the sham of the 2009 elections more seriously.

From the start of his presidency, Obama's team has either failed to recognize or chosen to ignore the fact that the biggest threat to the modern Afghan state is poor governance -- not the Taliban. Since 2009, the United States has done little to tackle the corruption associated with the Karzai government, and some of the U.S. contracting practices have also been prone to guile.

The flawed election process that has been at the heart of the recent crisis has its roots in the 2009 elections and Karzai's efforts to "Afghanize" the IEC and Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC), as well as the international community's lack of commitment in steering Afghans clear of such dangerous behavior. Instead of holding Karzai responsible for mismanaging the country and using what enormous influence the United States had (over 100,000 troops in the country and billions of dollars invested in development and reconstruction), the United States chose to pursue deals with the Taliban that distracted it from its primary objectives in Afghanistan and set arbitrary timelines for withdrawal.

The fact that Afghanistan remains tied at the bottom of Transparency International's index of most corrupt states with North Korea and Somalia serves not only as source of embarrassment for the Afghan government, but also as recruitment bumper sticker for insurgents. Unwilling to tackle the political challenges in Afghanistan, the Obama administration chose to focus on security gains and development projects that were necessary to salvage a deteriorating situation, but insufficient in delivering success in the Afghan mission. Ironically, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal had predicted this in September 2009 in an unclassified security assessment, arguing that: "To execute the strategy, we must grow and improve the effectiveness of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and elevate the importance of governance." By 2012, the narrative of the coalition mission in Afghanistan had shifted to the transition of security responsibilities to the Afghan National Security Forces, with the transition completed in 2013. This was based on a Washington-established timeline, not on conditions in Afghanistan.

The U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) paid little attention to the flawed and corruption-prone election system that was designed -- with Karzai's guidance -- following the 2009 election. Choosing not to intervene when there was clear evidence of endemic corruption and the lack of accountability for poor governance is mind boggling, considering that coalition troops were dying and billions of dollars were being wasted on efforts to give the Afghan government space.

Although I have been critical of the Obama administration's approach to the surge, security transition, and total withdrawal of U.S. forces by 2016, Obama and Kerry have shown critics -- myself included -- that when the Afghan state is threatened, they will react with courage and decisiveness. Yet last week's compromise does not excuse the U.S. administration from years of benign neglect regarding the deficiencies in Afghan governance -- particularly the electoral process -- which contributed to the recent crisis. However, recent Obama administration efforts have reinstated hopes that the United States is committed to seeing a democratic transfer of power in Afghanistan and to the country's political stability.

Moving forward, U.S. assistance should build upon the goodwill between the two candidates, and focus primarily on the mechanics of a complicated audit that requires Western support and continued cooperation from the IEC and the candidates. Besides the logistics and security considerations, including recalling the most qualified observers -- something which could be even more difficult if militants increase attacks on targets such as Kabul International Airport -- UNAMA will need time to ensure that the IEC and ECC accept the international election-monitoring standards that were rejected by President Karzai after the 2009 election.

Also, while Abdullah has made it clear that he and Ghani have an agreement (not a deal) on how to move forward, both camps seem to favor a constitutional shift to a parliamentary system. Though the terms of this arrangement remain ambiguous, the lessons highlighted above suggest that the Afghans should certainly take lead in this process and that the West must remain engaged in a respectful manner. After all, grand expectations will not matter much if the audit falls short of international standards in legitimacy and transparency. And, after the next president is inaugurated, the United States and its allies must continue to prioritize Afghan political, and economic, reform over security.

Kerry's negotiations last week demonstrate clearly that the West will achieve more if donor support is based on Afghan behavior that amounts to responsible governance rather than on arbitrary timelines. Simply put, in order to give the next Afghan president an opportunity to stabilize the country, the United States and its NATO allies should reconsider extending the mission in Afghanistan past 2016 during the alliance's September "force generation" summit in Wales, although their mission should remain limited to training and enabler assistance.

Keeping a limited footprint and a senior leadership team in Kabul (e.g. 4-star military leadership, ministerial advisory teams, a credible senior representative for Afghanistan, etc.) will be critical to maintaining the West's influence in Afghanistan. Also, according to Gen. Joseph Dunford, the current ISAF commander, al Qaeda may be "in survival mode" in Afghanistan, but may reconstitute itself if Afghan security forces are left without support prematurely. And if the United States abandons Afghanistan, either due to a failed Afghan election in the near term or a failed U.S. foreign policy that sets an arbitrary timeline for withdrawal, the country's reputation will be damaged tremendously among the international community and terrorist groups will likely regenerate in the region.

In the end, the United States must continue to leverage its instruments of power to preserve political stability in Afghanistan. A legitimate election process using a popular mandate that produces a president who has the ability to create a meaningful agenda for the nation is critical to Afghanistan's future. Similarly, enduring U.S. military and financial support remains a prerequisite to a stable Afghanistan. But, in terms of priorities, the United States must place an emphasis on supporting governance initiatives.

Kerry's breakthrough offers a new beginning to positive U.S. engagement that can continue with providing support to a legitimate election -- a key milestone to moving forward -- and a new president that can foster better U.S.-Afghan relations. But if the international community and the Afghan candidates fail to deliver on this promise and subsequent governance reforms, disaster will certainly follow.

Ioannis Koskinas is a Senior Fellow with the International Security Program at New America, and a retired military officer who focuses on risk mitigation and economic development projects in South Asia.

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