US, NATO step up to overcome Afghan electoral dispute

Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah holds up an ink-stained finger after voting in the presidential election in June, 2014.


By JOSH SMITH | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 14, 2014

KABUL — After months of sitting on the sideline, hoping to avoid the need for any intervention, American and international officials have become key players in trying to keep Afghanistan’s election process on track.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry spent Friday and Saturday meeting with candidates Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, as well as current President Hamid Karzai, brokering a deal to audit all ballots from the second round of voting to appease concerns of widespread fraud.

But the role of the U.S. and other international officials is far from over.

Abdullah, who trails Ghani by a million votes in preliminary results, has alleged massive fraud by his opponent, the election commission, and by Karzai. Abdullah’s threat to form his own government prompted a rebuke from Kerry and led to personal intervention by President Barack Obama.

“It was serious enough that it engaged the president of the United States and the secretary of State, and that’s not an everyday occurrence,” U.S. Ambassador James Cunningham told reporters in Kabul on Monday.

“At the worst, there was a real danger that this process could get out of control; at best, the talk coming out of both sides was undesirable,” he said.

Now the crisis that threatened to divide Afghanistan along political and ethnic lines — and to undermine future international aid upon which the country relies — seems to have been defused as both candidates vowed to accept the results and to work together in a new government.

“Suffice it to say, we would have preferred a more tranquil process,” Cunningham said. “It’s certainly not our preferred outcome, but given the realities of where the two candidates were … I think it’s safe to say there was mutual agreement on all sides that the way out of the stalemate they were in was to realize that the Afghans themselves couldn’t do it because the suspicions on both sides about the various parts of the political process — or the electoral institutions — were so strong that they weren’t going to be able to overcome that.”

Key to convincing both presidential candidates to accept the results of the election are proposals to audit every single one of the roughly 8 million ballots reported to have been cast in the second round of voting, and a plan to share power through a government of “national unity.”

Like many of the choices made in recent years in Afghanistan, the compromise represents the lesser of two evils, said American officials who spent several days with the two campaigns at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul hammering out the deal.

The audit, the outline of which was proposed by the United Nations, is expected to begin this week. U.N. and other international observers will join officials from the election commission and each campaign in analyzing every ballot box in a bid to overcome the allegations of fraud.

Military forces from NATO’s International Security Assistance Force will also join the effort for the first time, using their still massive logistics system to transport ballot boxes from outlying provinces to Kabul for analysis.

“The increased role of ISAF is purely to provide specialized logistics capability to enable the Independent Election Commission to centralize election material in a timely manner,” ISAF spokeswoman Lt. Cmdr. Jennifer Cragg told Stars and Stripes. “The most important thing to remember is that election materials are moved under strict chain of custody requirements, which includes eyes-on by IEC escorts at all times during the movement.”

Even if the audit goes off without a hitch and a new president is eventually inaugurated, fixing the systemic problems that led to the crisis remains a long-term process.

What form a new government would take has yet to be fully worked out, and would likely require a reworking of the constitution to modify the current presidential system and allow for a more parliamentary one. That process is far from settled and even Afghan politicians who welcomed the election deal said it leaves a politically perilous future.

“The agreement is great, but it means we’re digging a grave for democracy and elections in the country,” said Saleh Mohammad Saleh, a member of parliament from Kunar province. “From now on, if a candidate wins, the others won’t accept it and there will be problems.”

The still unspecified proposals of the deal mean the current system failed to live up to it purpose, he argued. “Now it means that we haven’t done anything in the last 13 years; we start from the beginning again.”

Still, Saleh said, the deal represented the most realistic solution under the circumstances.

“The new government does not have any other option than sharing the power, because the situation in the country won’t support any other option.”

That international intervention to resolve the crisis became necessary was “disappointing but not surprising” given the lingering problems with the Afghan election system, said Kate Clark, country director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network.

“The Afghan options were all used up and had failed,” she said. Unlike 2009, when the U.S. was seen as biased, this time American officials have been non-partisan, Clark said. “It meant that Kerry had the clout and the neutrality.”

Some observers feared that the allegations of fraud would be swept under the rug by international officials desperate to maintain stability in Afghanistan, but the comprehensive audit means “if all goes well, we will get an idea of who actually won this election,” Clark said.

Zubair Babakarkhail contributed to this report.

Twitter: @joshjonsmith