John Kerry and the Afghan Stalemate

The secretary of state has to push bitter presidential rivals to reconcile
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (left) talks with Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah at a press conference with candidate Ashraf Ghani in Kabul on Aug. 8 Photograph by Wakil Kohsar/AFP via Getty Images

Three months after Afghanistan’s presidential election and two months after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry brokered an agreement to resolve the dispute that arose from it, the country’s new president has yet to take office. Announcement of the official winner keeps getting delayed.

Afghanistan can’t afford this deadlock, and Afghans don’t deserve it. The presumed winner, former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, has the most to lose from this stalemate and thus the most responsibility for resolving it. But Kerry and Ghani’s rival, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, have roles to play as well.

Both Ghani and Abdullah represent a vast improvement over the corrupt rule of current President Hamid Karzai. Afghanistan would benefit from having both in positions of responsibility. So what’s preventing a power-sharing arrangement? Ghani says the constitution grants the president ultimate authority. Abdullah, for his part, believes that he’s had two elections stolen from him now and is playing with the prospect of mob rule.

Kerry’s way around all this was a United Nations audit of votes from the June election and plans for a unity government in which the winner would be declared president and the loser given a new post as “chief executive officer.” That hasn’t worked, because results of the audit have been repeatedly delayed until the two sides agree on the details of the unity government—a kind of chicken-egg problem that seems to have no easy solution.

On Sept. 11, UN Under Secretary General Jeffrey Feltman traveled to Afghanistan to push the two candidates to resolve their differences. But it may take another trip by Kerry to break the impasse. Regardless of the audit results, the election has lost much of its legitimacy in the eyes of not only Afghans but also of Afghanistan’s international supporters. Given the divisions the contest has raised, the declared winner cannot rule effectively without the committed support of the runner-up. That’s the only way Afghanistan can regain the stability it needs to beat back a resurgent Taliban and meet its staggering economic challenges.


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