The South Asia Channel

Afghan Elections: Back in Full Crisis Mode

Afghan President Hamid Karzai wants this year's election results to be announced by the end of the month. Karzai's spokesman, Aimal Faizi, told reporters on Thursday that: "President Karzai is truly in a hurry for a quick conclusion of the election process.... He has already done his packing." While many Afghans and the international community would be happy to see Karzai leave office at the earliest opportunity, it is highly unlikely that we will see his successor take the oath of office within a week. For starters, a U.N. press release stated that in a discussion with Karzai earlier this week, "Jan Kubis [the U.N.'s chief of mission in Afghanistan] said that a rigorous and credible audit required time, but could be completed around 10 September." Then, even if Karzai accommodates Kubis's request to give the election process more time, the fact is that the audit, in its current methodology, is unacceptable to at least one candidate.

Abdullah Abdullah, whose team has alleged industrial-level fraud in the June 14 runoff election, has pulled out of the audit, again. He argues that the two invalidation criteria clauses (Articles 12 and 16) that he considers critical to the resolution of a tainted and fraud-riddled election have not been adopted. At the U.N.'s request, Ashraf Ghani also pulled out of the audit process, leaving one of the groups accused of fraud and favoritism -- Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission (IEC) -- and the independent observers to finalize the audit and offer the results.

According to Abdullah's team, however, they will not accept the results of this audit and have promised not bow to international pressure to accept the results of the elections. Balkh provincial governor Ata Mohammad Noor has already signaled his frustration and has telegraphed the troubles ahead. In a recent interview, Noor told the Washington Post: "If the vote recount is one-sided or fraudulent, we will not bow down and accept the results." Or, as another former senior Afghan diplomat and Abdullah supporter, Davood Moradian, puts it: "[W]e must not sacrifice accuracy for time ... the inauguration ceremony is dependent on the agreements between the two candidates; determining the date is not up to the president."

Although only a month ago, it seems like a lifetime since U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's "miracle" seemed to have averted a similar crisis in Afghanistan with an eleventh-hour intervention. Citing similar complaints to the recent crisis, Abdullah's team came close to forming a parallel government after the IEC announced the election results -- putting Ghani in the lead -- without tending to the allegations of widespread corruption. After a tense 48 hours of negotiation, Abdullah and Ghani accepted a Kerry-sponsored agreement that centered on the notion that each vote would count and that an audit of all 8.1 million ballots allegedly cast during the runoff election would be conducted. Mired with delays over the lack of agreement on invalidation criteria, the process proved far less transparent than promised.

Sadly, this crisis has been in the making for a long time. For the past five years, Karzai has manipulated the electoral process so that he could control the outcome of the 2014 election. According to Carlotta Gall of the New York Times, "The warning signs have been there since the 2009 presidential election between Mr. Karzai and Mr. Abdullah, when 1.3 million fraudulent ballots were thrown out." Gall explains that, "angered by Western handling of that election, Mr. Karzai pushed changes to the election commission and the electoral law, removing international delegates from the complaints commission, appointing new commissioners and outlawing a statistical method used for identifying fraud."

In effect, the United States and the rest of the international community have allowed Karzai to lay the foundations for the 2014 election, which had an alleged 2 million fraudulent votes cast in the June 2014 runoff contest. Instead of holding Karzai accountable for his mischief and his anti-Western, pro-Taliban rhetoric, the West hopes that after the inauguration of a new Afghan president, he will quietly fade into irrelevancy. Trying to avoid the more controversial audit invalidation criteria, Kerry's most recent visit to the country steered clear of Karzai legacy issues, focusing instead on the framework of a national unity government.

In theory, under the proposed unity government framework agreement, the winner would become the president and the loser, or his designate, will assume the role of "chief executive," with a promise to hold a Loya Jirga (tribal gathering) within two years to consider the shift to a parliamentary system. Aside from disagreements on fundamental issues associated with mechanics of the unity government, the fatal flaw of this plan is that both Abdullah and Ghani think they won the elections. As such, they view the framework from the vantage point of the winner and neither has contemplated conceding defeat and accepting the role of a chief executive.

As with most U.S. initiatives in Afghanistan, the national unity government idea started off with the best of intentions. This week, reiterating President Obama's position, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, made it clear that the preferred outcome is for Abdullah and Ghani to "find a way to accommodate (the loser) -- that it's not a victor and vanquished, that there's a power sharing agreement." This approach may make sense in Washington, but it does not reflect the reality in Afghanistan. Most Afghans I know went to the polls (twice) in order to choose a leader, not to reach an accommodation. They did not defy threats from insurgents, lose fingers, and embrace the democratic process to have the two contenders simply negotiate the terms of joint rule between them. Afghans certainly did not go to the polls to end up with an election rushed to a premature ending that leaves much of the electorate disenfranchised.

Admittedly, I tend to put a significant amount of the blame for this election mess on Karzai. But, with the benefit of hindsight, much of the fault rests with U.S. administration officials who recommended that this small-time tribal leader should be plucked from political obscurity and propelled into the limelight of post-Taliban politics. Certainly by 2009 the United States should have known better than to trust Karzai as a partner in a nation-building effort that surpassed, in today's dollars, the Marshall Plan that helped rebuild Europe after World War II. The United States never leveraged Afghanistan's heavy reliance on Western support in 2009 to curb Karzai's antics, which have nearly turned the sacrifices of the entire coalition into a waste of blood and treasured resources.  

All good intentions aside, the reality on the ground is that the détente between the Ghani and Abdullah camps in Afghanistan is coming to what we hope is a temporary halt. Ghani has already declared that, although he favors a "unity government," he does not agree with the notion that the winner will share power with the loser fully and that the loser would serve "at the discretion of the president." Similarly, while Abdullah's team appears to remain committed to establishing a unity government, it is not at the cost of acquiescence with an audit process that does not address their concerns about industrial-level fraud properly.  

As much as this may surprise people in Washington, the Afghans have fully bought into the notion of a democratically elected president. Also, Afghans respect strength in their leaders. Although the unity government concept is sound in theory, the next president must have sufficient authority to alter the damaging course the international community has allowed Karzai to embark on. Finally, although the election process cannot go on ad infinitum, the international community and the Afghan government need to stay clear of arbitrary timelines and milestones ahead of a comprehensive agreement on the invalidation criteria associated with the audit process.

Unfortunately, with the election's legitimacy already tainted, few Afghans trust the foreign-sponsored, weak, and ill-conceived political accommodation that reflects bargaining between presidential hopefuls with a figurative gun to their head. Even fewer trust the IEC's impartiality and Karzai's motives. The enormous challenges the country's next leader is facing require the ability to make changes and rule as the majority winner of the Afghan election -- not as someone whose mandate to rule comes from a joint commission designed to present a façade of a unity government. While the international community should hold the next president to account for poor governance down the road, it should not try to over-influence the way he governs before he even takes office.

In the end, the only hope of averting a political meltdown in Afghanistan is if the international community halts any attempt by Karzai and the IEC to sweep the fraud allegations under the inauguration mat and hold the ceremony on September 2. Also, the situation will continue to slide toward instability as long as the international community does not accept the popular rejection of what Afghans perceive as a rigged electoral process. Unless the West keeps Karzai from following through with his intent to announce a winner by next week, things are going to descend into a situation that only an interim government can solve.

Depending on its composition, perhaps an interim government, with the intent to take over from Karzai and remain in office until the parameters are put in place for a credible election, is the best way forward. Rather than insisting on an outcome that has no victor or vanquished, the United States should focus on defending the legitimacy of the election and the democratic ideals that Afghans were excited about in the first place. Also, during this period of uncertainty, Afghanistan needs a steadfast leader to take charge and re-establish some form of credibility in the political process. Rather than insisting on a largely symbolic appearance at an upcoming NATO summit in Wales, the United States and its allies should continue to support the security institutions tackling the insurgency and give the new Afghan government time to recover from this, unfortunately preventable, election faux pas to salvage whatever progress has been made over the past 13 years.

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.