Small Wars Journal

Afghanistan: A Short Term Deal with Long Term Implications

Afghanistan: A Short Term Deal with Long Term Implications

Michael McBride

The deal brokered by Secretary Kerry to end the election deadlock is a troubling sign for Afghanistan’s future. While some hail the agreement as a much-needed foreign policy victory for the Obama Administration, it is an ominous sign for the future of Afghan politics. 

That an international interlocutor, in this case the United States, was needed to step in to mediate the burgeoning crisis before it spiraled out of control is disquieting. The inability of any organic government institution, including Afghanistan’s Supreme Court, its current president, the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), the Independent Electoral Complaints Commission (IECC), or even the legislature to reconcile both sides exposes the fragility of Afghanistan’s democratic institutions and the rule of law. What will happen if the 2019 Presidential election faces a similar outcome, when the United States has far less leverage as it will have exercised the “zero option” in 2016?

The new audit to which both sides have agreed is outside of the legally established framework for conducting elections that the candidates endorsed prior to the campaign. The election triggered a run-off because neither candidate secured at least 50% of the vote in the first round of voting. In the aftermath of the July 5th run-off, claims of fraud were evaluated by the IECC.  The necessity of American diplomatic intervention to ensure the IECC properly investigated claims of fraud means that the IECC is either incapable of providing proper oversight of elections or that it is rife with corruption itself.  In either case, the prospects for free, fair, and transparent elections in the future are dubious.

Secretary Kerry’s persuasion of Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani to collaborate on a “national unity government,” which was immediately interpreted differently by the two camps, regardless of the results of the audit, was perhaps the only way to prevent the crisis from escalation. But suggestions that the loser may be slated to become the prime minister are concerning.  Such power sharing arrangements among rivals have a dangerous precedent in Afghanistan’s recent history.  The bloody struggle between Hafizullah Amin and Nur Mohammed Taraki over control of executive power after the Sauer Revolution was the catalyst for Soviet military intervention.  After the mujahideen deposed Mohammed Najibullah, the framework for the formation of a unified government outlined in the Peshawar Agreement quickly dissolved as the commanders vied for absolute power leading to a vicious civil war that ravaged the country and ultimately the rise of the Taliban.  A parliamentary system may well be better suited for Afghanistan than the current system, but whole changes in government to appease the loser of a presidential election set a dangerous precedent for the future. 

This is not to criticize Secretary Kerry’s efforts; indeed his diplomatic skills were instrumental in dissuading Abdullah from forming a parallel government, an action that very well could have been the first step towards civil war.  However the Afghan experiment with democracy ultimately has to be conducted by Afghans, and as this election has proven, they still have a ways to go. 

As the administration executes the withdrawal of American forces in Afghanistan, it should consider the political impacts that a complete withdrawal had on Iraq.  A key component to reversing the violence during the surge was the political and security guarantee that American forces provided for the Sunni minority.  However in their absence, as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki gradually marginalized Sunni leaders in the government and the military, they began to see his increasingly sectarian government as a bigger threat than extremists like the Islamic State, leading to the current crisis threatening to tear the country apart.  While there are many important differences between the two situations, the deterioration of Iraq demonstrates the importance of remaining engaged diplomatically and militarily. 

American forces can act as the glue that keeps Afghanistan’s political rivals together while the country’s government institutions and civil society continue to grow and take root.  Without the continued presence of American forces in Afghanistan, the same political unravelling is an all too real possibility.  And while continued mentorship, training, and advising are crucial to the success of the Afghan National Security Forces in providing security, equally important is investment in improving governance and political processes.  A robust State Department presence to provide the same level of mentorship that has been given to Afghan’s military leaders is needed for its bureaucrats and politicians.  To encourage institutional development, the United States should tie future economic and military aid to defined political milestones and goals such as the successful execution of 2015 parliamentary elections and the 2019 presidential election, reforms to the IEC and IECC to reduce corruption, and revision of the electoral law to ensure future free, fair, and transparent elections that are accepted by candidates. 

But above all, Afghanistan’s key power brokers must commit to working within the legal framework that they have developed over the last decade to resolve their political disputes.  The ultimate winner of the election needs to form a pluralistic government that is inclusive of all Afghans; not one dominated by ethnic, familial, or tribal connections.  While surely the patronage politics that dominate the streets of Kabul are unlikely to end any time soon, the election’s winner can charter a course towards a more effective government by awarding ministerial positions based on competency, honesty, and merit on an equal footing to political clout.  Perhaps the most powerful and important individual in the current political landscape will be the election’s loser.  Accepting the loss by declaring confidence in the process and support for the victor will determine future stability.  Resorting to extra-legal means or violence to retain power and influence will lead Afghanistan down a dark path that has been all too familiar in its recent history.  Afghans have sacrificed too much for too long to accept such a fate.