Afghanistan’s Audacious Audit

The arrival of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Kabul on July 10 to mediate the political crisis following the announcement of the preliminary presidential election results demonstrated just how much is at stake in Afghanistan. The decision of Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission (IEC) to declare the initial figures of the runoff vote plunged ...

SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images
SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images
SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images

The arrival of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Kabul on July 10 to mediate the political crisis following the announcement of the preliminary presidential election results demonstrated just how much is at stake in Afghanistan. The decision of Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission (IEC) to declare the initial figures of the runoff vote plunged the country into a downward spiral and jeopardized chances for a democratic transfer of power.

Kerry's visit succeeded in de-escalating the deadlock: Abdullah Abdullah backed away from earlier suggestions that his camp would establish a parallel government. If the threat had materialized, military and financial aid from the United States would have most certainly come to an end. Likewise, commitments pledged by international donor countries in 2012 at the Tokyo meeting and the Chicago Summit to cover Afghanistan's civil and defense requirements would have suffered a similar fate.

Following intensive discussions, the two candidates agreed to a comprehensive audit of all 8.1 million run-off votes and to come together to form a "national unity government." However, just days after the presidential contenders reached an agreement on the proposed framework, there is already some disagreement emerging over what exactly a "national unity government" would mean in practice.

The arrival of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Kabul on July 10 to mediate the political crisis following the announcement of the preliminary presidential election results demonstrated just how much is at stake in Afghanistan. The decision of Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission (IEC) to declare the initial figures of the runoff vote plunged the country into a downward spiral and jeopardized chances for a democratic transfer of power.

Kerry’s visit succeeded in de-escalating the deadlock: Abdullah Abdullah backed away from earlier suggestions that his camp would establish a parallel government. If the threat had materialized, military and financial aid from the United States would have most certainly come to an end. Likewise, commitments pledged by international donor countries in 2012 at the Tokyo meeting and the Chicago Summit to cover Afghanistan’s civil and defense requirements would have suffered a similar fate.

Following intensive discussions, the two candidates agreed to a comprehensive audit of all 8.1 million run-off votes and to come together to form a "national unity government." However, just days after the presidential contenders reached an agreement on the proposed framework, there is already some disagreement emerging over what exactly a "national unity government" would mean in practice.

One possibility is that the loser might be appointed to a newly created office of the prime minister. The establishment of such an executive office would divide the functions of the government between the president, who would be the head of state, and the prime minister, who would be the leader of the government. However, three key problems emerge with this formula: (1) preventing overlap and limiting competition between the functions of the various offices within the executive branch; (2) working out whether Afghanistan would tilt towards a parliamentary democracy and how that would proceed; and (3) restoring voters’ faith in the electoral process and outcome. If the latter resolution fails to reconfigure, institutionalize, and codify the distribution of political power in Afghanistan’s political system, it is difficult to imagine that future attempts at political creativity would resolve other crises.

The comprehensive vote audit is expected to take a number of weeks and will begin with ballot boxes in Kabul. The actors responsible for this task will include the IEC, the United Nations, international election observers, and observers representing both presidential contenders. Despite agreement on the way forward, serious challenges remain on just how the audit will be conducted to separate valid votes from fraudulent ones. The absence of a national voter registry further complicates this highly technical exercise, but some helpful methods do exist. For instance, auditing officials can detect irregularities if they notice ballot boxes stuffed with votes ending in round numbers, or a pattern of votes repeating itself in favor of one candidate from different polling stations or centers. Although both candidates have said that they will accept the final outcome of this historic recount, there is a significant risk of heightened political tensions during this period (or after) that lead supporters from both camps to resort to violence.

While the political crisis has been dampened momentarily, the increasing number of attacks by the Taliban on Afghan National Security Forces in recent weeks bodes ill for the country’s security transition. The Taliban, it appears, have been exploiting the political instability in the country and the drawdown of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force to instill fear and uncertainty in the population. Moreover, the Taliban stand to gain from an escalation of the political crisis because the ensuing instability would be far more destructive than what violence alone can deliver. Such a condition would play to their strengths as political opponents; tribal leaders and Afghans would look for an ally — even if the Taliban are undesirable — who could protect them from a crumbling, yet predatory, state. The intensification of Taliban attacks is also meant to demonstrate to the Afghan government and its security apparatus that they are far from a spent force.

Afghanistan and its people are facing three key transitions in the country’s security, political environment, and economy. Yet none of the transitions will move forward — let alone thrive — if the current political crisis fails to deliver a verdict that is acceptable to either camp or their respective constituents.

Nishank Motwani is a doctoral candidate at the University of New South Wales in Canberra who is researching the regional dynamics of the conflict in Afghanistan. He has master’s degree in Strategic Studies and Diplomatic Studies from the Australian National University. He can be contacted by email at nishank.motwani@gmail.com.

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