Kerry is in the capital Kabul seeking to defuse a deepening crisis over a disputed presidential election which has stirred renewed ethnic tensions in the war-torn country.
Preliminary results from Afghanistan’s June 14 presidential run-off vote put former World Bank economist Ashraf Ghani in the lead with 56.4 percent of the vote. However, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, who won the first round of the polls, has rejected the count and his aides have threatened to set up an alternative administration.
According to reports, Ghani’s camp appears wary of Kerry’s involvement in the crisis, whereas Abdullah, who alleged widespread fraud in the vote, has welcomed the initiative. The US is Afghanistan’s biggest foreign donor, and is currently preparing to withdraw its combat forces from the country after more than 12 years of fighting Taliban insurgents. WAshington has threatened to withdraw financial and security support to the country, if either of the candidates tried to take power illegally.
Scott Smith, director of the Afghanistan & Central Asia program at the United States Institute of Peace, says in a DW interview that there is a real worry within the US administration that instability and a potential breakdown of order will precede the US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, rather than follow it.
DW: What is the purpose of John Kerry’s upcoming visit to Afghanistan?
Scott Smith: Secretary Kerry’s visit – which the State Department has not yet confirmed – would be a clear indication that the Obama administration is extremely concerned about the electoral impasse in Afghanistan. Part of this concern is surely a reflection of instability in Iraq. But unlike in Iraq, in Afghanistan there is a real worry that instability and a potential breakdown of order will precede the US withdrawal, rather than follow it.
Specifically, Kerry’s visit would have two purposes. First, symbolically, the visit of such a high level member of the administration would be a signal of the importance to the US of a nonviolent resolution of the electoral impasse. Second, more practically, John Kerry played a key role in resolving the 2009 electoral stalemate between President Karzai, then running for re-election, and Abdullah, his challenger. The administration surely hopes that Kerry’s previous experience and diplomatic skills might help achieve a resolution that is acceptable to all parties.
What is the administration’s position given the candidate’s unwillingness to reach a compromise?
The administration’s position basically has two points: it does not want to see violence used as a means of resolving the dispute, and it does not want to see extra-constitutional approaches. In other words, for the US, the solution to who won the election must still be decided by the vote count, but it has also made clear that it considers the preliminary figures released by the Independent Electoral Commission to be just that: preliminary rather than conclusive.
This is why, on July 7, Secretary Kerry issued a statement cautioning that neither candidate should use the preliminary figures to declare victory. This was clearly aimed at Ashraf Ghani, who came out ahead in the preliminary count. Instead, it was Abdullah Abdullah who seemed to come close to declaring victory and establishing a “parallel government.”
This led to a second statement hours after the first, expressing its concerns about Abdullah’s declaration, and underlining that any use of unconstitutional means to take power will result in a loss of US financial and military support. Ultimately, the US is trying to achieve a preservation of constitutional order, in the hopes that the constitution is binding enough on all actors to achieve a preservation of political order.
What can the US do to put pressure on the presidential candidates to reach a compromise?
The main point of leverage for the US is the threat that has already been stated: to withdraw financial and security support if extra-constitutional means are used to try to secure power. But this leverage is both difficult to calibrate and also somewhat diminished given the announcement in May by the Obama administration that its post-2014 military presence would only last two years.
There are few incentives that the US can offer at this point. It can offer proposals of a technical nature that might lead to a compromise, and it can hold out the threat to withdraw completely if no compromise is reached. The real pressure is to highlight the immense costs to Afghanistan if its political leaders cannot compromise.
The standoff has already quashed hopes for a smooth transition of power. What would the US be willing to do if the situation were to escalate?
This is a scenario that no one wants to happen. The formation of a parallel government as Kerry’s statement made clear, would lead to a withdrawal of American support. As a practical and logistical matter, however, this withdrawal would be difficult to engineer, given that the US still has around 30,000 troops in Afghanistan. Some sort of temporary cooperation with the government would be required. In the end, however, I don’t think this would happen.
The scenario of ethnic violence occurring beyond the control of political leaders would be even more chaotic and is perhaps more likely. It is possible that it could lead to a fragmentation of the Afghan security forces along ethnic lines and a return to a scenario that resembles or is a civil war. US and international forces would eventually find ways to extract themselves from such a situation. The Afghanistan they would leave behind, however, would be a zone of tragedy.
What would the failure to reach an agreement between the two candidates mean for the signing of the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the US and the future of the country as a whole?
The NATO Secretary-General has stated that the BSA must be signed by the NATO summit in Cardiff, which is in early September. This provides a hard deadline for the seating of a new president who can sign the agreement, or a decision by President Karzai to reverse his earlier decision and sign the agreement. I continue to believe that President Karzai’s refusal to sign the BSA after he was given broad authority to do so by a specially-convened national assembly was a major error.
It almost certainly contributed to the US decision to withdraw more rapidly from Afghanistan than originally anticipated, and it has complicated the resolution of this election dispute. If a worst-case scenario evolves, I think historians will identify Karzai’s failure to sign the BSA as a major miscalculation and a significant factor in the breakdown of Afghan political order.
International election observers have expressed concern over the quality of the investigation conducted into fraud allegations. Doesn’t this undermine the legitimacy of the results?
At the heart of the problem, and therefore of the solution, of the electoral crisis is the question of how fraud allegations are dealt with. Both sides accept there has been fraud. They disagree on the criteria that should be used to determine which ballot boxes should be quarantined for investigation of fraud. The kinds of criteria considered are ballot boxes where all votes issued have been cast, where a high percentage have been cast for a single candidate, where more women have cast votes than men, where more votes have been cast than the estimated population of a province, and so forth.
The point of the criteria is to identify ballot boxes where fraud might have occurred, and to investigate the votes in those boxes. The IEC said it would apply the criteria before the election, but they have annulled so few votes that they are likely inadequate. Four additional criteria have been agreed upon by both parties, but the Abdullah camp insists on several more.
The Ghani camp considers that the concessions it has made are reasonable, and that the additional criteria are excessive and perhaps not objective. The US, however, comes up against the issue of time. The longer it takes to agree on the criteria of ballots to be investigated, and the larger the pool of ballots to be investigated, the more likely it is that the process will drag on beyond the electorally-artificial but politically-significant deadline for signing the BSA described above. The problem for the Abdullah camp is that it is negotiation for a larger number of votes to be reviewed. Both the negotiation and the review will cost time, and even then it is still not clear that he would win.
How is the current political turmoil emboldening the Taliban and their ambitions?
There has been a recent spike of violence across the country. There is significant fighting in Helmand. After a lull of some time, there have been several suicide attacks in and around Kabul, as well as in other parts of the country. This is unfortunate. The large turnout of voters in the first round on April 5 was largely interpreted as a rebuke to the Taliban. In the second round, one of the explanations for Ghani’s surprising success was that Pashtun communities that wanted to vote for him persuaded the Taliban to allow them to.
The current political uncertainty, whatever its real causes, has allowed the Taliban to begin to reassert themselves. The government is in confusion. The police chief of Kabul was sacked one day and replaced a few days later. The political uncertainty at the highest levels of the state creates vulnerabilities that the Taliban are now exploiting, erasing the propaganda defeat that they suffered during the first and second rounds. Their ambitions will undoubtedly be emboldened by the impasse in Kabul.
Given the fraud allegations and the accusations made against the Afghan Independent Commission, would it be fair to say that the international community has not really succeeded in establishing democracy in the war-torn country?
This is a complicated question. I have never believed that it was the role of the international community to establish democracy in Afghanistan. A democratic order, if it is not embraced by the people, can never be democratic by definition. Therefore, the idea that an international community can establish a democracy in a third country, war-torn or not, is a category error.
The role of the international community was to help establish the institutions that would allow Afghans to participate in the crucial decisions affecting their political future. I have personally been involved in this effort from the international side since 2002.
The interesting features of the first and perhaps the second round of the presidential poll was that Afghan voters seemed to be more independent than they had been in the past, defying local leaders to vote according to their own interests. Until the dispute after the second round, it seemed that a major conclusion regarding the 2014 election was the emergence of the Afghan voter as an independent actor, rather than as agents of powerful political figures.
However, the events since the second round force me to confront the possibility that Afghan voters were more ready for democracy than Afghan elites, and Afghan institutions were pulled in both directions. The international community, for its part, is trapped between two logics: a logic of stability and a logic of democracy. In the ideal political vision of the international community, one leads to the other. The reality of Afghanistan now is testing that ideal.
But how can the Afghan elites embrace democracy without stability?
In terms of this election, there are only two real questions: Can the constitutionally-prescribed institutions conduct a credible investigation of fraudulent votes to arrive at a credible final result? And can the loser and his supporters accept that they lost? Anything else may provide stability, but not democracy. And a stability that is achieved without clarity about the rules upon which it is achieved will likely lead to governance on the only other rules that matter, which are those of force – in other words, a return to Afghanistan’s more recent past.
I have declared myself as a believer that democracy can succeed in Afghanistan, that Afghans understand this process, and that they prefer it to a show of arms. This election may prove me wrong in believing that democracy could work. But I also believe that stability cannot be achieved without some form of democracy in Afghanistan.
And if the democratic process breaks down, I am confident in predicting a period of dangerous instability that will cause us to look back at these few momentous weeks in Afghan history and make us ask: what more could we have done and, more importantly, what more could Afghan leaders have done to avoid the chaos that will surely ensue? If we have time to do so, we must surely avoid the occasions that require such tragic accounting exercises.
Scott Smith is the director of the Afghanistan & Central Asia program at the Washington-based United States Institute of Peace.
The interview was conducted by Gabriel Domínguez.
- Kerry to Visit Beijing for Talks on Situation in North Korea
- Theresa May 'extremely concerned' for Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe as she is moved to mental health ward
- Frantic search for two missing teenage girls aged 16 and 17 in Sussex as police ‘extremely concerned’
- Australian injured in Afghanistan suicide bombing says Defence inquiry ignored crucial evidence
- ‘US Alone isn’t Expected to Succeed in Bringing Peace to Afghanistan’ - Pundit
- Qld deputy coroner to examine deaths of three soldiers in Afghanistan
- Soldiers' inquest: Systematic failures contributed to deaths of three Australian soldiers in Afghanistan, inquest told
- Nadim plans return to Afghanistan to inspire girls in soccer
- Woman who is 'in love' with a Boeing 737 AIRPLANE leads a cast of extreme 'couples' in wild reality series - which also follows first COUSINS in a sexual relationship and role-playing kittens
- Jarrod who? Keira Maguire shows off her extreme cleavage and freshly tanned body in a skimpy peach bikini