The South Asia Channel

Afghanistan’s Northern Succession?

The Kabul political class is abuzz with rumors about what can come from Abdullah's withdrawal from Afghanistan's audit of the presidential run-off held in June. The UN is now scrambling to maintain the audit's legitimacy and convince Abdullah's camp to return, continue with the process, and uphold the results. Abdullah backing out of the audit also jeopardizes Secretary of State John Kerry's power-sharing arrangement, and U.S. Ambassador James B. Cunningham is trying to salvage the deal, perhaps to no avail. We are hearing from a number of very reliable and connected Afghan officials -- from Afghan businessmen, to journalists, to sitting Ministers -- that the election crisis is "dangerously deteriorating" from bad to worse. We've been told that Abdullah has seen the writing on the wall in terms of the election audit, and it's saying Ghani will be announced winner when the Independent Election Commission (IEC) releases the final results.

Abdullah is under immense pressure from his followers to take every step necessary in order to win. Abdullah could very well cave to the pressure, especially after acceding and admitting defeat in the 2009 election against President Karzai. We are hearing from credible sources in both camps that Abdullah will most likely declare himself President if the candidates fail to reach an agreement with the U.N. on the audit's next steps. His spokesperson, Sayed Fazel Sancharaki, said without an agreement "we end the process of the election" a rather ominous ultimatum.

Abdullah will likely claim his right to the Presidency based on the first round election results, where he won 45 percent of the votes. What's worrisome is that Afghan officials are hearing that Abdullah has secured an agreement with over 20 Afghan northern provincial governors to support his presidency.  Abdullah could essentially lead Afghanistan's northern succession.

If Abdullah declares himself president and vies to form a parallel government, there are three plausible scenarios; all of which lead to negative outcomes for Afghanistan and U.S interests. The first scenario would be that Northern Afghanistan descends into chaos, as key strongman Governor Atta recently asserted, with the military dividing along ethnic lines -- much like the sectarian border lines being drawn in Iraq. The Afghan National Army and the National Police will fragment, with officers joining up with their respective ethnic groups, because at the end of the day, most Afghans will default to ethnic and tribal ties. These groups would potentially take to the streets fighting for their political sides; the most obvious of which would be the Tajiks falling with Abdullah, and the Pashtuns with Ghani. Without a unified military or police force to maintain order and stability, this scenario would conceivably end in violent unrest across the country.

The second scenario would be that the Afghan military steps in -- à la Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Egypt -- to restore order while the political situation settles.  In this scenario, the integrity of the Afghan military is critical. Would the military merely assume power out of necessity to prevent civil unrest, relinquishing control once a democratic institution is restored, as in the case of Bangladesh? Or would the military assume power as a bulwark against extremism and with political motivations, as was the state of affairs in Egypt?  A military intervention resembling a coup could stabilize the situation in the short term but end up forcing the United States to disastrously cut off all financial aid in accordance with U.S. law.  As the political impasse continues in the coming weeks, we should closely watch the words and actions of Minister of Defense (and former Minister of Interior and Army Chief of Staff), Bismullah Khan.  

The third scenario -- and the one we are hearing most often from Afghan civil society and political elites -- would be that President Karzai calls upon a Loya Jirga (grand assembly) to reinstate him as interim leader until either the election audit works itself out, or Afghanistan holds another round of elections with much stronger international monitors. Abdullah's followers wouldn't be entirely thrilled with this outcome, but we are hearing from his camp that they would much rather see Karzai reinstated than Ghani becoming president and would likely settle for this option. While this is the least terrible of all potential outcomes, it still leaves a great deal of room for instability and leaves the much-delayed Bilateral Security Agreement with the United States in a very precarious state. 

What are our options? Regardless of whether Abdullah cedes the election settling for the ambiguous position of Chief Executive or preemptively declares himself winner, the possibilities of Afghanistan deteriorating will remain.  A unity government is possible but it will take consistent and high level mentoring now and for the foreseeable future to guide both sides towards a Prime Minister - Presidential system.  The country is spinning out of control in the void of a U.S. overlay of power, and we need to respond quickly before the situation in Afghanistan escapes our grasp. The most immediate and effective course of action is the United States fully reengaging in the crisis at hand and reconsidering the 2016 withdrawal. With sustained American leadership and guidance -- sans a time stamp -- the United States can ensure Afghanistan does not snowball into Iraq.

Michael G. Waltz is a Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation, as well as the Co-Founder of and a Principal in 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.