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The calm in Kabul

Will agreement between presidential candidates keep Afghanistan from tipping over?

Written by Vivek Katju | Published:August 19, 2014 12:19 am
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, and Afghanistan's presidential candidates Ashraf Ghani, and Abdulah Abdullah hold their arms in the air together after announcing a deal for the auditing of all Afghan election votes at the United Nations Compound in Kabul. (Source: AP) U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, and Afghanistan’s presidential candidates Ashraf Ghani, and Abdulah Abdullah hold their arms in the air together after announcing a deal for the auditing of all Afghan election votes at the United Nations Compound in Kabul. (Source: AP)

US secretary of State John Kerry was compelled to visit Kabul on August 7 and 8 to mediate between the Afghan presidential candidates, Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, after the election audit and power-sharing deal brokered by him on July 13 unravelled. Both candidates had failed to agree on the basic principle for the identification of the fraudulent votes cast in the second round of the polls. They were also unable to make headway on forming a national unity government, a key part of the deal.

Till Kerry’s August visit, it seemed that the audit would go on for months and the unsuccessful candidate, most likely Abdullah, would reject the results. These developments were leading to a major political fracture and the army was in danger of splitting on ethnic lines. An invigorated Taliban, with Pakistan’s support, is waiting to launch a major move, possibly even take over territory in the south and east. Afghanistan was on the edge of a precipice. Has the August 8 agreement kept the country from tipping over?

Both candidates have now agreed to ensure that the audit concludes soon so that the new president can take over by August. This would enable him to attend the Nato summit on September 4 and 5, where the organisation’s post-2015 plans for Afghanistan would be finalised. Both candidates, unlike President Hamid Karzai, have agreed to sign a bilateral security agreement with the US as soon as they assume office. Nato has threatened a full pullout from Afghanistan by 2014 unless the agreement is signed. Obviously neither candidate wants this. An immediate total withdrawal, which would result in vastly reduced financial flows, would be catastrophic.

A quick audit would be an advantage for Ghani as he is about a million votes ahead in the second round, having secured 56 per cent of the vote to Abdullah’s 44. This is a dramatic change from the first round, in which Abdullah had emerged as the leading candidate with around 45 per cent of the vote. Ghani was a distant second with 32 per cent. Other candidates were far behind and some of them pledged their support for Abdullah before the second round. This was required as the Afghan constitution mandates that a successful candidate must have more than 50 per cent of the vote.

It was widely expected that Abdullah would win the election. Ghani claims that his vigorous campaign for the second round led to his Pashtun supporters coming out in unprecedented numbers, increasing the total votes cast to around 8 million from 6.5 million in the first round. The fact is that the Afghan political leadership puts ethnic loyalties before national considerations, and the US and the West did not pursue a strictly neutral course because they were more comfortable with Ghani. He has lived in the West for a long time and also has a World Bank background. Abdullah has international exposure but worked as a close aide of the legendary leader of the Afghan jihad, Ahmed Shah Massoud, from whom he imbibed a fiercely nationalistic spirit, though leavened, as in the case of Massoud, with pragmatism.

The power-sharing arrangement envisages the creation of the post of chief executive, which would be occupied by the losing candidate, some of whose supporters would be accommodated in select national security and economic institutions of the state. The new president is also enjoined to summon a loya jirga to amend the constitution to create a post of prime minister within a period of two years.

Speaking soon after the latest deal was worked out between Ghani and himself, Abdullah said, “No matter who wins, we commit ourselves to working together for the sake of Afghanistan”. These fine words notwithstanding, the road ahead is thorny and full of imponderables. So far only about 50 per cent of the vote has been audited. Besides, Abdullah’s principal supporter, the powerful governor of Balkh, Atta Mohammed Noor, has warned of civil unrest if Abdullah is not declared the winner.

The negotiated arrangement is itself extra-constitutional and its interpretation is already contested: for Ghani, it does not involve power-sharing; for Abdullah, it is power-sharing plus. Finally, neither of them has the manipulative political skills that Karzai demonstrated all through his tenure. The Afghan situation and political future would have been far more secure, and, consequently, the will and ability to handle the inevitable Taliban challenge would have been far greater, had the second round of the election not been subjected to what Abdullah described as “industrial-level” fraud.

India has vital interests in Afghanistan. Despite other challenges to our interests in West Asia, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his strategic policy advisors need to give Afghanistan prime attention, especially at a time when an exhausted US wants nothing but a relatively smooth withdrawal from the country. For the present, it seems that Pakistan, though unpopular among the Afghan people, is strategically far better placed in Afghanistan than India.

The writer is a former Indian ambassador to Afghanistan

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