What’s happening with Afghanistan’s election crisis?
You will have heard about the ongoing crisis in Iraq, where jihadists have set up an Islamic state in the cities US forces once fought to clear. But you may have heard less about the political crisis in Afghanistan, America’s other experiment in post-September 11th nation building.
What’s going on?
Last month, voters in Afghanistan went to the polls for what was supposed to be a smooth conclusion to the third democratic presidential election in Afghan history.
There were two candidates in the final round of voting: Ashraf Ghani, an American-educated former World Bank official; and Abdullah Abdullah, a medical doctor and former anti-Taliban resistance fighter.
Preliminary results from the June 14 election were released on Monday showing Mr Ghani had won with 54 per cent of the vote. But the results were met with fury by Mr Abdullah, who claims there was widespread voter fraud and that “a coup” is being carried out against the will of the Afghan people.
Mr Abdullah declared himself the winner of the election despite the results and is leaving open the possibility he may unilaterally form his own government.
What’s the worst-case scenario?
If no solution is found there’s serious potential for violence along ethnic lines or even for Afghanistan to break apart.
Mr Ghani is an ethnic Pashtun and his support came from the Pashtun homelands in the south and east of Afghanistan. Mr Abdullah’s power base is in the north among the Tajik community. The worry for the US is that the political confrontation could escalate into killing or that Mr Abdullah’s camp could form a breakaway government in the north.
What is the US doing about it?
Both in public and private, the US has been scrambling to keep a lid on the crisis. The White House supports a widespread audit of around three million votes cast at 7,000 polling stations in the hope that a transparent approach will placate Mr Abdullah’s angry supporters. President Barack Obama even personally called Mr Abdullah to reassure him the US will help ensure fraudulent votes are sifted out.
But John Kerry, the US secretary of state, also delivered a stern warning to Mr Abdullah not to destablise the country or take action outside the election process. “Any action to take power by extra-legal means will cost Afghanistan the financial and security support of the United States and the international community,” Mr Kerry said.
What happens next?
Mr Kerry is expected to fly to Kabul this week to try to mediate between the two sides. Meanwhile, Mr Abdullah asked supporters at a rally to give him a few days to figure out his next move.
Mr Ghani, the election winner according to the preliminary results, has so far kept his rhetoric calm, saying that both he and his rival have “a responsibility to ensure the stability of our country”. He has also said he’s open to an audit of the election results.
The final vote tallies are due to be announced on July 22. The US will hope to have found a way to de-escalate the crisis before that, possibly by securing Mr Abdullah a job in the new government.
The danger will come if the final results are announced and Mr Abdullah refuses to accept them, putting the two sides on a collision course where only one can prevail.
Is there any validity to Mr Abdullah’s claims of fraud?
There was undeniably fraud in an election carried out in a country that is poor, corrupt and still in the middle of a war. The question is how much.
Mr Abdullah’s camp points to the first round of the elections, where their won around 45 per cent of the vote and Mr Ghani took only 32. In the second round Mr Abdullah stayed around level with 43 per cent but Mr Ghani surged to 54 per cent.
The Abdullah camp says Mr Ghani’s increased numbers are the result of massive fraud. Establishment figures in the Afghan government argue instead that Pashtun voters coalesced around Mr Ghani in the second round of voting and that he ran a far superior campaign.
What are the implications for the Nato mission in Afghanistan?
Mr Obama announced a plan in May to draw down US forces to 9,800 in 2015 and withdraw all but a few hundred American soldiers by the time he leaves office in early 2017.
That plan depends on the next Afghan president signing the bilateral security agreement (BSA) – a deal that spells out the status of US troops in Afghanistan post-2014.
Both Mr Abdullah and Mr Ghani have committed to signing the BSA soon after taking office. The US fear is that the political crisis pushes back the formation of a new government and signing of the BSA, which would throw American plans for an orderly withdrawal into chaos.
An Afghan diplomat said they were confident that the crisis would be resolved before the planned August 2 presidential inauguration and that the standoff would not impact the signing of the BSA.