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Afghanistan: who blinks first?

Derailment of Afghanistan’s presidential elections, it seems, has been averted for now. In a curious exhibition of Washington’s political dexterity, U.S. secretary of state John Kerry brokered a deal between rival candidates – Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani – who agreed to form a national unity government. Complementing this process is a comprehensive audit of ballots proposed by the United Nations but led by the Independent Election Commission of Afghanistan (IEC).

If all goes per script, Afghanistan will soon have a new president and, according to media reports, a prime minister too by 2016. Washington’s interest in making this happen increases the odds for short-term optimism. Regardless of who wins, Washington will get the Bilateral Security Agreement [BSA] ratified, allowing it to station troops on Afghan soil with legal immunity. The question, however, is – how to sustain the show? Hashmat Karzai’s – cousin of current President Hamid Karzai and Ghani’s campaign manager – recent assassination by a suicide bomber is one of the many warning signs that should make the powers-that-be, rethink strategy in Afghanistan.

To begin with, is a satisfactory ballot audit possible in the immediate future? The acuity of this question rises in the face of disagreement over the UN-proposed audit mechanism. Despite having agreed to its guidelines, rival candidates raised concerns about the audit methodology. Disrupting the process twice within the first week, political agents of Abdullah and Ghani exhibit lack of trust in the IEC and maintain a confrontational posture towards each other. This is despite the UN’s assurance that audit teams from the IEC will use a 16-point checklist to physically inspect 23,000 ballot boxes in Kabul warehouses.

All papers will be checked for systematised markings indicating electoral rigging, and whether the numbers add up to the count registered in polling station journals. The Board of Commissioners from the IEC will then review the audit results in the presence of international and domestic observers, media and UN advisors, as well as candidate agents. None of this has, however, adequately convinced the candidates.

But let’s be positive and assume that the candidates accept the audit results. How will power sharing actually happen? Clearly, none of the candidates would accept a ceremonial role. Moreover, worryingly, there is no defined framework for sharing power. Neither Secretary Kerry nor the candidates discussed it in detail. The hard, historical, truth is that a coalition government has never run modern Afghanistan. Starting from Daoud Khan’s coup in 1973 to infighting within the communist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) throughout the 1980s, Afghanistan never developed a workable power-sharing polity.

Even Mujahideen factions of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Burhanuddin Rabbani were unable to abide by the 1992 Peshawar Accord and the 1993 Islamabad Accord for more than a week each. Of contemporary relevance is the failure of the current political rivals to establish a working relationship independent of external pressure. For instance, Karzai rose to power only when Washington arm-twisted former United Front [Northern Alliance] factions into compromising ministerial berths at the 2001 Bonn Conference. Ever since, the list of grievances of the opposition groups with Karzai has only grown. Even if the last decade of power jockeying is factored in, the future of this unplanned national unity government looks uncertain.

Nonetheless, let’s say all critics are proven wrong and the national unity government does get instituted. How will the Taliban and its multifarious factions react? Interestingly, the elections have proved extremely divisive for the Taliban. A deeply fractured movement with tremendous internal power imbalance, the Taliban has three key factions: the Quetta shura, the Peshawar shura and the Miranshah shura. Within the Quetta shura there are two sub-factions, one led by Akhtar Mansur and the other by Abdul Qayum Zakir. Barring the Miran Shah shura that is controlled by the militantly anti-government Haqqani network and Zakir’s hard-line sub-faction, other Taliban constituencies want to negotiate with the central government to varying degrees. Averse to Abdullah, these pro-negotiation Taliban factions have zeroed-in on Ghani as their preferred candidate. Not surprisingly, the election run-off saw more Taliban-led violence in voter pockets sympathetic towards Abdullah whereas Pashtun-dominated pockets sympathetic to Ghani saw none of it. Taken to its logical conclusion, Abdullah’s victory will unite Taliban factions and risk heightened ethnic violence. However, if Ghani wins, it will come down to how power brokers from north, west, and to some extent central Afghanistan react.

Finally, will a national unity government be acceptable to regional powers? Given that the Taliban and other political and military factions in Afghanistan have external benefactors, this question is critical. Thankfully, India and Pakistan have publicly supported a peaceful transition. Even though New Delhi prefers Abdullah and Islamabad has its heart on Ghani, the South Asian neighbours have no antipathy for either candidate. However, Abdullah’s closeness with Iran has seriously complicated his marketability in Saudi Arabia, whereas Ghani’s links with Washington (and Saudi Arabia) have left him on a back-foot in Teheran. As the Shia-Sunni divide and the Iran-Saudi rivalry intensifies, meaningful reconciliation between their proxies in Afghanistan remains a distant dream. Unfortunately there are no immediate solutions to this political turmoil that will leave everybody satisfied. With multiple challenges and conflicting interests and ambitions staring at its face, the current Afghan electoral standoff looks like a game of who blinks first.

Avinash Paliwal is a Teaching Fellow at the Defence Studies Department, King’s College London.

This feature was written exclusively for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read more exclusive features here.

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