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Ghani’s Win “Only a Partial Victory”
Ghani’s Win “Only a Partial Victory”
There’s No Shortcut to Peace in Afghanistan
There’s No Shortcut to Peace in Afghanistan
Interview / Asia

Ghani’s Win “Only a Partial Victory”

Originally published in Deutsche Welle

Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission (IEC) announced on Monday, July 7, that former World Bank economist Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai won the June 14 presidential election runoff poll with 56.4 percent of the vote, according to preliminary results. His rival, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, came second with 43.5 percent of the vote. The turnout was reportedly more than eight million out of an estimated electorate of 13.5 million voters, much higher than expected.

The numbers and outcome might still change, however, when final numbers come out on July 22. The runoff vote had been widely regarded as a major step in the country’s democratic transition, as it comes at a critical time in the country as foreign troops prepare to leave in the coming months. But the vote has been marred by allegations of massive fraud.

In a DW interview, Graeme Smith, senior Afghanistan analyst for the International Crisis Group, says any significant delay in the electoral calendar will it make it harder for the US and NATO to reach a deal to keep troops in the country after the end of the year. It remains unclear whether both the candidates will accept the final election results.

What do the current preliminary results mean for the electoral process?

Graeme Smith: This means that Ghani’s team has successfully persuaded the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) to release the preliminary results in a timely fashion. That was a key demand of the Ghani campaign, which wants the process to go ahead.

Abdullah’s camp, however, wants the process halted, and demands that results be delayed until his team is satisfied that the ballots will be rigorously checked for fraud. So, this is a partial victory for the Ghani campaign, but we’re still a long way from final results – and, most crucially, even further from those results being accepted by both candidates.

How likely is that his rival Abdullah will accept the result?

Abdullah’s campaign has already rejected the preliminary results as fraudulent. Even a cursory look at the vote totals posted on the IEC website confirms obvious fraud – for example, a polling centre where several boxes contained exactly 500 votes – but it appears that the fraud was committed by supporters of both sides. The key will be getting the two campaigns to agree on mechanisms for checking the validity of the results.

Election officials said the turnout was over eight million in the June 14 vote, far higher than expected. Is this figure likely to trigger further allegations of fraud?

Both the first and second rounds of this election featured some optimistic turnout figures, which may not reflect the actual number of voters. Still, the system has been designed in a way that makes it very hard for international observers to confirm whether any particular ballot cast is connected to a real voter.

Why did the Independent Election Commission decide to release the election results today, despite international calls to conduct a more thorough audit?

There is pressure on the Afghan government to get this election completed and install a new presidential administration in time to meet the political, economic, and military challenges of the transition period as foreign troops leave.

There’s a crucial NATO summit in September, a major meeting of donors in November, and other hurdles that will require a functioning new administration. Most urgently, Afghanistan needs to sign a Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the United States and associated Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with NATO, so that foreign troops – including German forces – can stay beyond the expiry of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mandate on December 31, 2014.

Abdullah had previously boycotted the election process over what he called “blatant fraud” committed in favor of Ghani. Ghani countered by arguing that the election was relatively clean. Given the deadlock, is a power-sharing agreement still on the table regardless of which candidate comes out on top?

Nobody really knows what kind of conversation is taking place right now between Abdullah and Ghani, but it’s fair to assume they’re not only discussing the mechanisms of electoral politics. They both have powerful supporters who depend on access to the levers of authority in Kabul, so whatever is happening behind closed doors at the moment probably involves some way of accommodating those vested interests.

How likely is it that this result will lead to further ethnic tensions and perhaps violence if no agreement between the two candidates is reached?

The extent to which this election upsets the many balances of power in this country may determine the level of violence that follows the results. Afghanistan has many fault lines – Junbish vs. Jamiat, Ghilzai vs. Durrani, Uzbek vs. Tajik, Pashtun vs. Tajik – and all of these, among others, could be strained by this tense political contest.

What would the failure to reach an agreement between the two candidates mean for the signing of the Bilateral Security Agreement with the US and the future of the country as a whole?

Any significant delay in the electoral calendar will put pressure on US and NATO plans to keep troops in the country after 31 December. These are complicated military plans that are difficult to arrange at the last minute, and some troop contributing nations may be reluctant to sign onto a post-2014 mission without some political certainty in the near future.

Some Afghans hold outgoing president Hamid Karzai to some extent responsible for the current crisis and claim he has engineered this deadlock to extend his stay in power. What is your view on this?

It’s hard to say to what extent Karzai managed, or mismanaged, this process because most of his actions have been taken privately. Assuming he does hand over power to a new president in August, as scheduled, that single act would set him apart from all other leaders in Afghan history – and may redeem his legacy to some extent, depending on the future survival of the government.

Op-Ed / Asia

There’s No Shortcut to Peace in Afghanistan

Originally published in Foreign Policy

Washington’s latest idea of a transitional government would be worse than the dysfunctional status quo.

If there is one thing the United States should have learned after two decades in Afghanistan, it’s that there are no quick fixes. That has proved true for the war, and it’s true for any possibility of a negotiated peace. But faced with the decision whether to comply with a May 1 deadline for pulling out all troops under a deal the U.S. government signed with the Taliban in February 2020, Washington is now searching for a shortcut to an Afghan political settlement. There isn’t one.

U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad has delivered to the Afghan government and Taliban a draft Afghanistan Peace Agreement—the central idea of which is replacing the elected Afghan government with a so-called transitional one that would include the Taliban and then negotiate among its members the future permanent system of government. Crucial blank spaces in the draft include the exact share of power for each of the warring sides and which side would control security institutions.

At the same time, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken wrote to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, in a letter that soon leaked, saying it was “urgent” to “accelerate peace talks” and move “quickly toward a settlement.” The letter states that the United States has asked Turkey to host a high-level meeting between the Afghan sides “in the coming weeks to finalize a peace agreement.” The letter also references a U.S.-proposed 90-day reduction in violence (a concept short of a cease-fire) while diplomacy continues—which suggests that Washington knows an agreement within weeks is unlikely.

Chances that Taliban leaders or Ghani would agree to anything like the U.S. draft peace agreement are vanishingly small. But if they do, the result will be worse than this gambit failing.

Chances that Taliban leaders or Ghani would agree to anything like the U.S. draft peace agreement are vanishingly small. But if they do, the result will be worse than this gambit failing.

For the Taliban, the draft has too many hallmarks of the existing government setup: It includes a commitment to holding elections and keeping in place the constitution devised under U.S. auspices in 2004 until a new one is written. The available evidence of Taliban thinking points to their rejecting any arrangement that would make them appear co-opted into a system they have long opposed in exchange for a partial share of power.

For Ghani, the proposal is premised on him relinquishing power. That brutal fact, plus the rough-edged tone of Blinken’s letter, has whipped up a political tempest in Kabul. Afghan Vice President Amrullah Saleh reacted most bluntly, saying Afghanistan would “never accept a bossy and imposed peace.” Ghani knows that the main Afghan enthusiasts of the transitional government idea are his political opposition and the country’s former mujahideen, who sense opportunity to gain power as it is parceled out.

In the unlikely event the new U.S. peace plan materializes, the power-sharing arrangement it envisions would be prone to collapse. A body comprising multiple factions plus the Taliban—at a stage of the peace process before they’ve even begun to hash out core issues that divide them—would be less functional and less stable than the fragile government in place now. The hard work of negotiating the structure of a future Afghan state will not be eased by prematurely erasing the current one. And if a fractious transitional government fails, the cease-fire the U.S. plan promises would evaporate with it.

The U.S. proposal reflects a boiling over of Washington’s frustrations with Ghani. The Afghan leader’s critics have accused him of obstructing a peace process that has sapped his government of its already tenuous authority. The past several Afghan elections have been bitterly contested, the country’s politics are deeply corrupt, and service provision is increasingly limited to population centers, with the Taliban insurgency operating freely throughout much of the countryside.

The U.S. proposal reflects a boiling over of Washington’s frustrations with Ghani.

But however much Ghani has contributed to slowing the process, dismantling the elected government is unlikely to hasten peace. The Taliban have not moved any faster. It took over a year of bilateral negotiations and numerous U.S. concessions for the Taliban to sign a four-page agreement spelling out a tight timeline for U.S. and NATO withdrawal and more ambiguous Taliban promises to prevent Afghanistan being used as a launching pad for terrorists. And the Taliban remain coy about details of the political vision they seek to realize. Official Taliban statements that their movement will accept some degree of power sharing are contradicted by internal messaging emphasizing victory and ascendance.

After delays for which the United States was as much to blame as any other party, Afghan talks finally commenced last September in Doha, Qatar. They’ve progressed haltingly, at least in part because the parties are waiting for a new U.S. government to signal whether it will stay committed to a process the previous one catalyzed.

The slow pace now clashes with the deadline for withdrawing foreign troops. That’s a problem the U.S.-Taliban deal caused by decoupling the withdrawal timetable from any requirement of progress in negotiations. But it’s also a problem that can’t be solved by demands to speed up the hard slog of reaching a political settlement.

It will be difficult to get the peace process in Doha to produce results, but it’s too soon to jettison a process that has taken years to set up and has only just begun. Instead of promoting a new plan that has almost no chance of being accepted and that would further weaken the Afghan state, Washington should put its energy into testing whether the Doha process can be made to work.

It will be difficult to get the peace process in Doha to produce results, but it’s too soon to jettison a process that has taken years to set up and has only just begun.

This should include rallying the regional powers, especially Pakistan, Iran, China, Russia, and India—who all have links to actors in the Afghan conflict—around generating momentum for the existing process. A high-level meeting of this group, which Washington has asked the United Nations to convene, is a good idea, but these stakeholders need a better peace plan to coalesce around than the new U.S. proposal.

If the United States wants to give the talks a real chance, then it will need to keep troops in Afghanistan beyond May 1 to maintain leverage for forging a settlement and to forestall a downward security spiral that would spike the process.

Ongoing talks would provide the best argument Washington could make to regional powers, especially Pakistan, for why they should help pressure the Taliban to let the deadline slip.

But if talks break down—as they probably will, given how divided the parties are and how rarely peace processes succeed—then it will be better to have even a dysfunctional Afghan government still standing than to have replaced it with a stopgap transitional one whose existence would not survive the end of negotiations. And if the Biden administration plans to pull out U.S. forces soon, then it’s better not to risk leaving such wreckage behind.


Program Director, Asia
Senior Analyst, Afghanistan