Kerry’s Visit to Kabul Will Be Critical to Defusing Afghanistan’s Election Crisis

Zalmay Khalilzad, David Sedney Analyze Hopes for Resolving a Dangerous Dispute

This weekend’s visit
to Afghanistan by Secretary of State John Kerry will be a critical opportunity to defuse the dispute over Afghanistan’s presidential election that threatens the country’s stability, two former US top officials said. Kerry is to travel to Kabul as presidential candidates Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani dispute the still-incomplete results of last week’s voting – a crisis that if left unresolved could lead to ethnic splintering and civil war, according to former diplomats Zalmay Khalilzad and David Sedney.

Abdullah, the former foreign minister and a candidate heavily supported by ethnic Tajiks of Afghanistan’s northeast, rejected the preliminary vote count announced Monday by Afghanistan’s Independent Electoral Commission, which showed him trailing former finance minister Ghani by twelve percentage points. In the election’s first round of voting, Abdullah led Ghani by fourteen percentage points, and he accuses President Hamid Karzai of having helped tilt the second round of voting in Ghani’s favor. Karzai, like Ghani, is a member of the Pashtun ethnic group, the country’s largest.

Abdullah lost confidence in the formal election process when the election commission included 7,000 disputed ballots in the preliminary announcement of results, Khalilzad and Sedney said at a forum hosted by the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center. The ensuing distrust in Abdullah’s camp of the Ghani campaign, the Karzai government, and the electoral commissions caused his supporters to respond with protests and demands for the formation of a parallel government. Still, Khalilzad noted, Abdullah has reiterated the importance of Afghan national unity and has urged his supporters to remain patient as he waits to hold formal talks with Kerry, who press reports say will arrive in Kabul on Friday.

A Basis for Hope: The Political Maturity of Ghani and Abdullah

Alongside the formal negotiations with election officials, an informal track of communication between the two political campaigns should be maintained as part of calming the conflict, Khalilzad said. He urged the elaboration of political formulas to keep the loser of the election engaged in the political process.

Sedney identified the Obama administration’s involvement in resolving the dispute as a vital demonstration of continued international support to the Afghan people. Abdullah’s campaign is facing tremendous internal political pressure to harden his stance, as “the margin of fraud is larger than the margin of error.” Sedney reminded the audience that “disentangling the web of conflict is something that only Afghans can do.” However, like Khalilzad, Sedney said Abdullah and Ghani share a broad congruence on the major political issues facing Afghanistan. Both candidates are politically mature and committed to a progressive vision for Afghanistan. Responding to fears that a compromise will not be reached, Khalilzad stressed that “both candidates do not believe in the philosophy of winner take all,” and reminded the audience that no political position is more important than the future stability of the country itself.

Sedney rejected the suggestion that Karzai is trying to use the dispute to extend his term in office. While it is known that Karzai wants a political role in Afghanistan’s future, Karzai “does not want to be president anymore,” Sedney said. If the crisis is not resolved and Karzai stays in office, Sedney argued, it will cost him the biggest accomplishment of his twelve-year term in office: Afghanistan’s first-ever democratic and peaceful transfer of power from one leader to another.

Highlights of the discussion included these:

  • On the insurgency: Both speakers were concerned that the Taliban and other armed rebel groups may take advantage of the political crisis in Kabul by escalating their summer offensive. If the two candidates fail to reach a compromise and ethnic divisions begin to resurface across the political spectrum, the Taliban and their supporters in Pakistan will perceive the continuation of armed conflict as the best way forward, Sedney said. It is in the Taliban’s interest to see political divisions in Kabul that could weaken the Afghan National Security Forces.

  • On Afghanistan’s political future: Although his view of the Obama administration’s policy in Afghanistan is generally favorable, Khalilzad said, he hopes that the United States and the future government of Afghanistan will reassess the decision to withdraw all US combat forces by 2016. Sedney criticized the tendency of US governments to heavily engage foreign policy issues only when they erupt in crises. “When the crisis is resolved, the US must stay involved,” he said. Sedney stressed that “power-sharing” formulas of the past — with their distribution of senior government positions to the heads of competing factions — are not the solution to Afghanistan’s political problem. Instead, the country needs a government that provides “inclusive, progressive, performing, young, and uncorrupt” leadership, he said.

  • On Afghanistan’s broad progress: Khalilzad noted the development of Afghanistan’s education system, the growth of civil society, the recognition of women’s rights, the increase in Afghanistan’s connectivity with the world, and the operational successes of the Afghan National Security Forces. These, he said, are indicators of a relatively successful coalition effort in Afghanistan during the past twelve years. Referring to the political fatigue that characterizes the views of America’s political class towards Afghanistan, Sedney stressed that the “American people and American leadership cannot make good decisions on Afghanistan because they don’t know the facts” of this progress.