The U.S. risks being blamed for taking sides in Afghanistan’s election as Secretary of State John Kerry travels to Kabul this week in an effort to mediate the dispute between the country’s rival presidential candidates.
Abdullah Abdullah, who came in second in an initial count that he says was tainted by fraud, said yesterday that Kerry planned to visit Kabul on July 11 to discuss the disputed results.
While the ultimate loser of the election and his supporters may fault the U.S. for stepping in, the Obama administration has no choice because a fractured Afghanistan would undermine American interests in the region, said David Sedney, a former Pentagon official who oversaw policy for the war-ravaged country.
“The risks of acting are high, but the risks of not acting are higher,” said Sedney, who’s now affiliated with the Alliance in Support of the Afghan People, a nonprofit group that favors a continued U.S. presence in the country.
The Obama administration, faced with foreign-policy crises from Ukraine to Iraq, is taking a renewed interest in Afghanistan after months of signaling that the U.S. was willing to pull out all of its troops early next year in the absence of a bilateral security agreement. Both of the presidential candidates have pledged to sign the accord that the departing President Hamid Karzai has spurned.
Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, a former finance minister, received 56 percent of about 8 million votes, with Abdullah getting 44 percent in the second-round runoff, according to the initial results announced on July 7 by Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission.
President Barack Obama has called both Abdullah and Ghani “as part of our ongoing efforts to call for calm and emphasize the need for political dialogue as last month’s election results are tabulated,” the White House said last night in a statement.
While urging “a thorough review of all reasonable allegations of fraud,” Obama warned against a resort “to violent or extra-constitutional means, which would result in the end of U.S. assistance to Afghanistan,” according to the statement.
Abdullah, a former foreign minister, had led the first round of the election in April with 45 percent of 7 million votes cast, with Ghani taking 32 percent. Neither garnered the majority needed to avoid a runoff.
The increased number of ballots cast in the second round raised suspicions of fraud, Sayed Fazel Sancharaki, a spokesman for Abdullah, said by phone. The two sides have agreed to audit votes in 7,000 polling stations, or about a third of the total, Sancharaki said.
Abdullah has sought to void about 2.5 million votes in southern and eastern regions, saying the number of ballots exceeded the population in certain areas. A senior election official he had accused of fraud resigned last month.
Ghani has urged calm and asked his supporters to avoid celebratory gunshots. He said he welcomed an investigation into poll fraud and said he’s open to political negotiations.
“We want a united, prosperous and stable Afghanistan,” Ghani said. “We expect Dr. Abdullah won’t move the country into another crisis.”
Ghani is an ethnic Pashtun who served as Afghanistan’s finance minister from 2002 to 2004 and finished fourth in the 2009 election. He holds a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Columbia University in New York.
Abdullah is half-Pashtun and half-Tajik. He was a close aide to Northern Alliance commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, an ethnic Tajik seen by many Afghans as a national hero for fighting against Soviet occupiers in the 1980s and the Taliban in the 1990s.
Abdullah has tried to strike a balance between pressure from his supporters and the risk of fracturing the country. He declared victory and threatened to announce his own government while calling on his backers to give him more time to negotiate an outcome.
Asked about Abdullah’s decision to claim victory in the election, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said, “That is not acceptable.”
“We’re not doing a day-by-day grading system here, but certainly we don’t think that would be a productive step moving forward,” Psaki said at a briefing in Washington yesterday.
Afghan civilian casualties rose 24 percent in the first half of 2014 from a year earlier, according to a report by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Kabul.
Seventeen people were killed and 12 wounded in clashes between Afghan forces and militants in Kandahar province, Dawa Khan Menapal, a spokesman for the southern province, said by phone. These include 11 suicide attackers, four civilians and two policemen, he said, adding that no group has claimed responsibility.
Beyond the U.S. role in helping to resolve the vote-count dispute, it could play a role in prodding both candidates toward forming a loose coalition government, said Zalmay Khalilzad, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan and Iraq who’s now president of Gryphon Partners, a Washington-based consulting firm.
Citing examples of coalition governments in post-World War II Europe, the losing side could be given policy making and non-executive branch roles, Khalilzad said at an event hosted by the Atlantic Council in Washington yesterday.
While the Obama administration may be reluctant to become involved in arranging such a coalition “my own judgment is that you need progress on both strands to get this resolved,” Khalilzad said in a brief interview.
“Regardless who is the winner, one could make progress on what will happen to the team that’s not going to win,” Khalilzad said. “The Afghans have the lead on that, but we can play a catalytic role.”