Kerry Can Break Afghanistan's Stalemate

Two candidates, one problem-solver.

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

Afghanistan can't afford this deadlock, and Afghans don't deserve it. The presumed winner of June's election, former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, has the most to lose from this prolonged 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.

The uncertainty has stoked frustration and tension among Afghanistan's diverse population, millions of whom braved insurgent attacks to vote, and may even fuel the re-emergence of the Taliban. It has delayed the signing of a Bilateral Security Agreement to keep thousands of U.S. troops in the country after this year -- a deal that was to have been finalized at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit earlier this month.

QuickTake Leaving Afghanistan

The irony is that both Ghani and Abdullah represent a vast improvement over the corrupt rule of current President Hamid Karzai. In fact, Afghanistan would benefit from having both in positions of power and responsibility. Ghani, who draws on the support of many Afghan Pashtuns, has valuable technocratic experience as a former United Nations and World Bank official. Abdullah, a doctor and a veteran of the long fight against the Taliban, commands the respect of the Tajiks, who are highly influential within the Afghan military and security forces.

So what is preventing this kind of power-sharing arrangement? Ghani says that the current constitution grants the president ultimate authority. Yet as the behavior of Karzai showed, the current constitution is a blueprint for autocracy. Abdullah, for his part, believes that he's had two elections stolen from him now (he also lost to Karzai in 2009) and is playing with the prospect of mob rule. His followers and partners are angry and powerful enough to threaten a fissure that he himself may not be able to control.

Kerry's way around all this was a United Nations-supervised 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.

Last week, the U.N. sent Undersecretary-General Jeffrey Feltman to push the two candidates to resolve their differences. But it may take another trip by Kerry to break the impasse. He is the best man to deliver some uncomfortable truths, especially to Ghani: Regardless of the audit results, the election has lost much of its legitimacy in the eyes of not only the Afghan people but also Afghanistan's strongest international supporters. Given the divisions the contest has raised, the declared winner cannot rule effectively without the committed support of the runner-up. That is the only way that Afghanistan can regain the stability it needs to beat back a resurgent Taliban and meet the country's staggering economic challenges.

--Editors: James Gibney, Michael Newman.

To contact the editor on this story:
David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net