The South Asia Channel

Will Afghanistan Be the Next Crisis?

While the international community has been distracted by the situations in Iraq and the Ukraine, tensions in Afghanistan over this year's presidential elections have been simmering away and a crisis could be on the verge of boiling over into civil war. With the NATO and U.S. withdrawals looming ever closer, intense U.S. leadership and engagement is crucial to finding a political resolution.

After initial and run-off rounds of voting failed to produce a clear winner, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry traveled to Afghanistan to intervene and managed to broker a deal between the two contenders, Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani. In addition to supporting an audit of the run-off votes, both men agreed, in principle, to a power-sharing arrangement where the winner of the audited run-off will become president and the runner-up will assume a chief executive role, something akin to a city mayor or manager. This arrangement would ostensibly remain in place for two years until a Loya Jirga (grand assembly) could be called to decide a permanent arrangement.

Unfortunately, the division of powers between these two positions was ill-defined and many fear the ambiguity could lead to dangerous power struggles in the near term. Though both Abdullah and Ghani -- Western-educated men wanting a better future for Afghanistan -- initially agreed to the deal, the United States underestimated the control of their supporters. As we have seen, Abdullah and Ghani are reasonable men, but their power-broking followers are not. Indeed, on Tuesday, August 12, Ghani backed away from the arrangement, apparently in an attempt to appease his less-compliant supporters. Abdullah's backers, on the other hand, have been more vocal about their expectations: Atta Mohammed Noor, the governor of Balkh province, warned in an interview with the Washington Post the next day that his Tajik followers would hit the streets if the electoral audit does not reach a fair outcome; translation: a win for Abdullah.

The Obama administration heretofore has not helped matters by announcing in May that the United States was essentially going to have zero troops in Afghanistan by 2016. Putting a time stamp on U.S. commitment to a country that still vitally needs its assistance was a poor move, and Afghans only heard confirmation of their long-feared abandonment. Then in June, the administration released the Taliban's top five cabinet-level detainees from the U.S. detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba in exchange for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the country's only prisoner of war. While the men are currently being held in Qatar and are unable to travel abroad, they will be able to leave in just over nine months.

Further complicating the situation is the fact that NATO is ending its combat mission in Afghanistan this December, and is holding its annual summit on September 4 and 5 to discuss, among other things, a remaining advisory presence. For a small force to stay in Afghanistan, NATO requires a signed agreement with the Afghan government detailing the legal reasons for their necessity. Though there was hope that Afghanistan's new president would sign the pact, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen recently said that even an end-of-August deal is cutting it close to the summit, and that if there is no arrangement by then, NATO will be forced into a total pull-out.

The bottom line is that the United States needs to engage Afghanistan in a serious manner, and fast. Episodic trips by Kerry are not going to get the country through this crisis. However, the administration can do a number of things to right the ship, starting with bolstering the internationally-monitored Independent Election Commission. Its current effort to audit the run-off election votes is moving at a glacial pace that could go on for months; yet time is a luxury the Afghan government doesn't have. The administration can also signal that the pace of the U.S. troop drawdown in Afghanistan is negotiable if both sides do not come to an agreement. Instead of conducting sporadic trips to prevent immediate violence, Kerry should be engaging both Abdullah and Ghani -- and their followers -- at a high level, and on a continuous basis. Through this continual engagement, he can help flesh out the power-sharing arrangement, clearly defining the positions, roles, and ministry appointments, so no one is left guessing or hedging. 

But even if increased involvement gets the Afghans through this very serious short-term crisis, the United States must remain engaged in the long-term as both presidential contenders present tricky options to a country rife with ethnic tensions. Ghani, for instance, is Pashtun, the majority ethnic group that has historically led Afghanistan. If he is declared president, it is unclear whether the Tajik-dominated north will fall in line, particularly since so many of them feel that the 2009 elections were stolen by outgoing President Hamid Karzai. As Abdullah told Michael last fall, "My followers swallowed a painful pill in the 2009 elections for the good of the country. If we face such corruption and cheating again, I will not be able to control them this time." Conversely, if Abdullah is announced the winner, he will be a Tajik serving as the Commander-in-Chief of a largely Tajik-led army combatting a Pashtun-led insurgency. Given the Tajiks' historic alignment with India, and to a lesser extent Iran, Pakistan will assuredly provide more support to the Taliban and Haqqani Network.

While ethnic violence is only a possibility should either candidate become president, it's a near certainty if the election results remain unresolved. Delaying a democratic solution will breed the same type of unrest we are witnessing in Iraq, much of which boils down to sectarian polarization. Though the Obama administration has stressed that it's response to the situations in each country are different, the common thread between them is a lack of U.S. commitment; whether real or perceived, the effect is the same.

Reaffirming commitment to Afghanistan isn't politically palatable in the United States right now, but critics might reconsider if they looked at the current circumstances through a historical lens. It was enduring U.S. efforts that contained the spread of ideologies like National Socialism and Communism. Islamist extremism is an ideology that requires a similar multi-decade commitment to be defeated. In order to guide Afghanistan through this perilous transition and prevent the country from descending into chaos, the United States must lead and soon.

As the Washington Post's Editorial Board asserted in March, "President Obama has led a foreign policy based more on how he thinks the world should operate than on reality." The "tide of war," it noted, isn't receding as he has long hoped. The administration must grasp the reality that there are consequences from inaction and announcing a withdrawal years in advance. These uncertain election results are simply a symptom of the larger problem -- a country that is insecure politically and in terms of security. We can't leave before the job is done, allowing the country to revert to ethnic violence and a Taliban resurgence.

Michael G. Waltz is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, as well as the co-founder of and a principal at Askari Associates, a strategy and policy firm serving clients in the Middle East and North Africa. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Warrior Diplomat: A Green Beret's Battles from Washington to Afghanistan, which details his experiences with Afghanistan both as a Green Beret and a policy-maker.

Alyssa Kelly is a national security analyst at Askari Associates. 

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