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Quick Fix in Kabul

by Sune Engel Rasmussen
Shah Marai—AFP

Shah Marai—AFP

The Ghani-Abdullah deal keeps the peace, for now.

At a high school in Kabul on Sept. 22, Ashraf Ghani, dressed in crisp white shalwar kameez and black jacket, was almost shouting. “We are not just responsible for protecting the vote of the people,” he said, “but also to protect people’s lives!” This, Ghani’s first speech as Afghanistan’s president-elect, was ostensible explanation for why the Afghan people had had to wait more than three months since the last ballots were cast to find out just who would succeed Hamid Karzai as the war-torn country’s next leader.

Between the end of the vote and the power-sharing agreement finally being reached between Ghani and his challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, it had appeared likely that the controversial presidential election might push Afghanistan back into civil war. Talks between Ghani and Abdullah had repeatedly broken down. More than once, it got so bad between them that their campaign workers participating in the U.N.-monitored vote audit got into fistfights. Fearing loss of influence as a result of the political crisis, the country’s warlords threatened to create their own government. It took U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry a number of personal visits and some 27 phone calls to Ghani and Abdullah to even get the two candidates in the same room.

Ghani and Abdullah will now rule Afghanistan together, through a “national unity” government, with Ghani as president and Abdullah as “chief executive officer.” Both were sworn in on Sept. 29. Abdullah will lead cabinet meetings, participate in the appointment of key security and economic positions, and carry out executive affairs. But he will be answerable to President Ghani. This unique arrangement has defused the crisis for now. But it is not what Afghan voters had bargained or risked their lives for. “The agreement for the formation of a national-unity government avoided a potential crisis,” says Davood Moradian, director-general of the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies, “but part of it undermines the democratic process.”

Many in Kabul believe that the long delay it took for Ghani and Abdullah to arrive at this arrangement was the result not so much of their sincere efforts to strengthen Afghanistan’s nascent democracy, as they have claimed, but of each candidate’s brute attempt to grab power at the expense of the other. Fairly or not, there is a widespread feeling here that the presidential election was not conducted for the sake or betterment of the people.

When it comes to the economy, the peace process with the Taliban and other militants or foreign policy, there are no major differences between Ghani and Abdullah. The real issue is over the people each wants to induct into government. Both men are allied with rival warlords and militia leaders, who obtained wealth and power by providing “security services” to U.S. troops in Afghanistan. U.S. support to these warlords was a quick fix that undermined the democratic process envisioned at Bonn in 2002. There is a risk that the unity-government deal could turn out to be the same kind of stopgap solution, providing stability only in the short term.

The agreement does not divvy power equally between the president and the CEO; and its wording is sufficiently vague, allowing for potentially profound disagreements. Ghani—a former World Bank staffer and at one point Karzai’s finance minister who has previously criticized international aid to Afghanistan as primarily designed to benefit U.S. contractors—says he can convince Western allies and investors to keep faith in Afghanistan. He has reforms lined up and is expected to handpick a team of technocrats to help him implement them. This is probably why he seemed reluctant, even as he signed the power-sharing agreement, about any deal with Abdullah that might slow down his own decision-making. Indeed, the fact that Ghani refuses to call it a “power sharing” agreement, as most observers do, is a sign of more squabbling to come.

Observers fear it is only a matter of time before the bad blood between Ghani and Abdullah deadlocks the government. The power-sharing deal could also bode ill for future elections. In its current state, Afghan democracy appears to need support from the international community. It is afflicted with local players not actually up for election who are able to bully their way to influence by pushing the country into prolonged crisis. (Most prominently, Atta Muhammad Noor, a powerful Abdullah supporter, called for a parallel government to be created with its seat of power in Mazar-e-Sharif, where he is governor.)

For now, analysts are cautiously optimistic about the Ghani-Abdullah pact.

“This is the best possible outcome we could get,” says Waliullah Rahmani, director of the Kabul Center for Strategic Studies, a think tank. “Democracy is young in this country, democratic institutions are young. We have to take it as a serious and legitimate election, even if it is not an optimal situation.”

The vote itself was controversial for good reason, not least because of the election commission’s refusal to release the final vote count. In fact, as part of the deal, Abdullah’s side reportedly insisted that this be kept secret. In the days leading up to his inauguration as president, Ghani posted a document on his Facebook page certifying that he had won 55 percent of the vote. In response, Abdullah threatened to boycott the inauguration.

According to leaked documents, some 850,000 of the eight million votes cast were declared invalid by the election commission. Abdullah alleged that a million illegal ballots were stuffed in Ghani’s favor. He also accused the chief electoral officer of organizing ballot-stuffing on Ghani’s behalf. All this made the U.N. vote audit—the most comprehensive it has undertaken anywhere—unavoidable. Since it began on July 17, the audit has cost an estimated $10 million a day, funding which mainly came from the U.S.

It may only be a matter of time before the bad blood between Ghani and Abdullah deadlocks Kabul.

“The audit was comprehensive,” said Ahmad Yousuf Nuristani, chief of the Independent Election Commission, at a stormy press conference in Kabul at which he refused to take any questions, but it “could not detect or throw out fraud completely.” Shahmahmood Miakhel, country director of the U.S. Institute of Peace, also says the audit has not been decisive, “If industrial-scale fraud happened, it was not proved.” Meanwhile, the chief of the EU observer mission to Afghanistan said that there were another two to three million votes he would have liked to have seen investigated further. The formation of a “national unity” government seems to render the audit close to pointless, but it did buy Ghani and Abdullah more time to cut a deal.

For all its flaws, the election process represents the first ever democratic handover of presidential power in Afghan history. But it is no time for victory laps. Afghanistan has paid a price for the impasse: public funds to pay teachers and other state employees ran out in August, security deteriorated, the political standoff fanned fears of violent clashes, and, according to the finance minister, the country scared off potential revenue of $5 billion.

Ghani faces several challenges besides potential problems with Abdullah. But he is expected to be less obstinate than Karzai as far as the West is concerned. European officials in Kabul told Newsweek they expect a radical change in approach, they believe Ghani will resist the temptation to fuel suspicion of the West for easy populism.

The election crisis came at a time when the bulk of international troops deployed in Afghanistan are preparing to leave. U.S. President Barack Obama has pledged to keep 9,800 U.S. troops in Afghanistan until 2016. Of these, 8,000 will form part of NATO’s planned strength of about 12,000. Ghani is amenable to providing legal cover for this presence, through the Bilateral Security Agreement with the U.S. and a Status of Forces Agreement with NATO.

The U.S. and NATO member states were hoping to wrap up 13 years of involvement in Afghanistan with a successful election that could serve as a neat token of democratic progress. But for many in Afghanistan, such self-congratulatory efforts appear jarring.

The same week that NATO’s secretary-general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, said that the alliance had “done what we pledged to do,” Afghan officials announced that 200 Afghan security forces had been killed this summer fighting the Taliban over control of Sangin, a Helmand district. That’s more than the total number of American and British forces killed in the entire war. On Sept. 16, a suicide bomber killed three international soldiers in an attack on a convoy near the U.S. Embassy. At least 13 Afghan civilians were also injured.

Over the past months, Taliban forces have taken advantage of the power vacuum in Kabul to launch their largest attacks in years. Afghan security forces are stretched. Important districts in the opium-lush hinterlands of Helmand province teeter on the brink of falling to the Taliban, whose ranks have been bolstered by Pakistani fighters fleeing Islamabad’s military campaign in North Waziristan. Districts around the city of Kunduz in the north are looking equally vulnerable. So far, Afghan forces have not fractured, but they have suffered heavy casualties.

Yet, despite the visibly deteriorating security situation, the U.S. Congress this year halved development aid to Afghanistan and slashed 60 percent of a $2.6-billion bid by the Pentagon to supply “critical” capabilities, such as mobile-strike vehicles, to Afghan forces. NATO has promised to fund Afghan security with $4.1 billion a year. Afghanistan analysts say this is not enough. The planned funding will only cover two thirds of the 352,000-strong Afghan security forces, which may have to be trimmed down to 228,000 personnel. How the men react to the layoffs is anybody’s guess.

“There hasn’t been enough public acknowledgment from NATO that the war is growing,” says Graeme Smith, a Kabul-based analyst at the International Crisis Group. “Afghanistan is going to have to go back to donors every year, trying to make up for the gap on the security-funding side. And that puts pressure on the rest of Afghanistan’s budget.”

The pressure on the Army and police is already evident. More civilians have been killed and injured in the first half of the year than in any other period during the war. Crime is up, even in the cities. Several provincial police chiefs recently declared a “take no prisoners” policy when fighting militants. Human-rights observers fear that, in an already difficult transition period, the rule of law could fall by the wayside. It is now up to Ghani to ensure that it does not.

The president’s other problem is Pakistan.

Speaking to Newsweek at his house earlier this summer, Ghani said he was keen to build on the “platform for cooperation” that Karzai established with the neighboring country. “Ten years from now, we want to be in a France-Germany type of relationship with Pakistan,” he said. “For hundreds of years, France and Germany tore each other and Europe to bits. Now it’s inconceivable that they would go to war. They began with the European Steel and Coal Community and proceeded to form the EU. Confidence-building overcame the legacies of their past conflicts.”

For Ghani, confidence can be built through regional energy projects, like the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline and by Pakistan using Afghanistan to import electricity from Uzbekistan. These projects, says Ghani, will create jobs, support peace in the region, and ease hurdles for the return home of some 5 million Afghan refugees still living in Pakistan and Iran. But everything will depend on Pakistan’s “attitude,” he said. “We need a fundamental change in mentality. First and foremost, [we need from Pakistan] full acceptance and acknowledgment of our sovereignty. That’s the fundamental issue. We don’t have a complex regarding our existence, but we sense threats and there are feelings—though I think we will overcome them—that this is no-man’s land. It’s not no-man’s land. We own this country. And we’ve owned it forever.”

Ghani and Abdullah have agreed to reform electoral institutions ahead of next year’s parliamentary elections. But inspiring people’s faith in democracy may not prove easy. For a man fighting on several fronts, Ghani acknowledges that, “The biggest challenge is [establishing] trust between the people and the government.” He may have won the election, but can he win the people’s trust?

Rasmussen has reported for The Economist, The New Republic, Time, and Foreign Policy. He lives in Kabul and tweets at @SuneEngel. From our Oct. 4-18, 2014, issue.

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