Avoiding Spiral: Three Key Questions on the Afghan Political Crisis

Afghansitan ballot boxes 2

No fraud here…

Will the Obama Administration, consumed once again with Iraq, be caught flat-footed as the Afghan political crisis unfolds?

The preliminary election results were due to be announced on July 2, but reportedly have been postponed for a few days.  As I warned in an earlier post, the margin of fraud seems increasingly likely to be greater than the margin of victory for either candidate.  If that turns out to be the case, this could mean an indecisive outcome with neither candidate winning a clear victory.  This could be de-stabilizing.

Fraud supporting both candidates was legion; ballot-stuffing widespread.  Violence suppressed voting in many Taliban-contested areas, which probably affected Ghani more than Abdullah.  Industrial-scale rigging, however, seems to have been in Ghani’s favor.  The Deputy of the Independent Elections Commission was allegedly caught on tape directing the efforts for certain locations.  The number of ballots in the pro-Ghani East and Southeast was unusually high. President Karzai, unsurprisingly, has brothers in both camps.

You should have voted for the other guy

We should be troubled, but not terribly surprised.  According to social scientist Paul Collier, in his book War, Guns, and Votes, the rate of re-election for incumbents in the developing world is 74%, as compared to 45% in the developed world.  Within the countries that make up the so-called “Bottom Billion” the rate increases to a whopping 88%.   Election rigging is the coin of the realm, particularly among kleptocracies.

Whether any of the fraud will be decisive in the final tally is too soon to tell.  Both candidates’ actions seem to suggest that Ghani will have a strong lead in the preliminary results.  How much of that is legitimate may never be known precisely.

We should continue to support efforts to throw out fraudulent ballots and get the vote count as credible as possible, but the likelihood of getting to a clear “final answer” is low.  There are no Afghan institutions with enough legitimacy to decide an outcome, either.  By comparison, the 2000 election in the U.S. remains controversial despite, at that point, over 200 years of practice.

The Afghan people placed their faith in political change through peaceful and legitimate elections.  Their elites have let them down.  Afghans, rightly outraged, now face the prospects of an outcome that lacks legitimacy.

Afghan political actors need to resolve this problem, and need to be held accountable for doing so.  The U.S. and others should not attempt to dictate or be perceived trying to shape a particular outcome.  Such machinations are unlikely to work, and we will rightly get the blame.

They can, however, help avoid the worst outcomes.  Once Afghans come up with a reasonable solution, the U.S. and international community can assist in keeping all parties on board.

To do so, the U.S. and international community need to be prepared.  Specifically, the Administration should be thinking through three critical sets of questions:

What outcomes are most likely to be viewed as illegitimate or could be de-stabilizing?  What steps can be taken to avoid these problems?  A range of potential outcomes exist, such as: one candidate being declared a winner; a political compromise both parties can live with; a new election; Karzai remaining in power.  Do we have the necessary indicators and warnings to know if supporters of either or both candidates will attempt to use money or muscle to influence a decision? What steps, if any, should be taken to lower the risk of political violence?

Which outcomes, if any, would doom prospects of critically needed political and economic reform?  The 2016 troop withdrawal is likely to coincide with the onset of donor fatigue.  A lack of serious progress on political and economic reform could lead to a fiscal crisis that undermines the government – assuming we get past this electoral crisis.  An outcome that further weakens the prospects of reform could accelerate the day of reckoning.

Which outcomes, if any would undermine chances for a dignified and responsible peace process?  The international community is unlikely to bankroll a perpetual conflict, especially in support of a predatory kleptocracy.  Political and economic reform will need to go hand-in-hand with real efforts for a peace process.  The prospects seem to be more likely in 2015 after both the Afghan government and the Taliban figure out that neither is going to win an outright victory, or suffer an outright defeat, and that a peace process is needed to avoid another Afghan civil war.

A sensible set of policy options can be derived from thoughtful answers to these questions.  Afghans must determine their political future and be held accountable for resolving the current crisis.  But the Administration can help Afghans avoid catastrophe, while supporting a sensible but probably imperfect resolution.   What we cannot afford is simply to make it up as we go along.

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Kolenda Strategic Leadership LLC

Kolenda Strategic Leadership LLC