The Only Choice Left for Afghanistan

Last month, in an interview with New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, President Barack Obama unveiled a new approach to U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. Friedman reported that Obama intended to offer American support "to the extent that the different communities there agree to an inclusive politics of no victor/no vanquished." Although Afghanistan ...

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

Last month, in an interview with New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, President Barack Obama unveiled a new approach to U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. Friedman reported that Obama intended to offer American support "to the extent that the different communities there agree to an inclusive politics of no victor/no vanquished." Although Afghanistan was not mentioned in the interview, which suggests the country is a waning U.S. priority at best, Obama is pushing for a similar accommodation in the Afghan elections.

In effect, the U.S. administration has indicated that unless Afghan presidential candidates Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani adhere to the national unity framework they agreed to in July, the sine qua non U.S. financial assistance to Afghanistan will come to an abrupt halt. Thus far, the Afghan political process remains at an impasse, with both sides claiming victory. But Obama's litmus test for support is leaving them with little choice but to accept this accommodation. As such, it appears as if the only choice left is for the candidates to agree to a power-sharing interim government that adheres to Obama's doctrine.

Strategically, the Obama administration's latest foreign policy doctrine is obtuse. The Washington Post's Charles Krauthammer calls it "untethered from reality," and "nothing but tactics and reactive improvisation." Unfortunately, taking its cue from the United States, the international community seems incapable of addressing Abdullah's allegations of industrial-level fraud, choosing instead to push for a national unity government. Coupled with this, the no victor/no vanquished approach has further damaged the legitimacy of the Afghan government.

Last month, in an interview with New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, President Barack Obama unveiled a new approach to U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. Friedman reported that Obama intended to offer American support "to the extent that the different communities there agree to an inclusive politics of no victor/no vanquished." Although Afghanistan was not mentioned in the interview, which suggests the country is a waning U.S. priority at best, Obama is pushing for a similar accommodation in the Afghan elections.

In effect, the U.S. administration has indicated that unless Afghan presidential candidates Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani adhere to the national unity framework they agreed to in July, the sine qua non U.S. financial assistance to Afghanistan will come to an abrupt halt. Thus far, the Afghan political process remains at an impasse, with both sides claiming victory. But Obama’s litmus test for support is leaving them with little choice but to accept this accommodation. As such, it appears as if the only choice left is for the candidates to agree to a power-sharing interim government that adheres to Obama’s doctrine.

Strategically, the Obama administration’s latest foreign policy doctrine is obtuse. The Washington Post‘s Charles Krauthammer calls it "untethered from reality," and "nothing but tactics and reactive improvisation." Unfortunately, taking its cue from the United States, the international community seems incapable of addressing Abdullah’s allegations of industrial-level fraud, choosing instead to push for a national unity government. Coupled with this, the no victor/no vanquished approach has further damaged the legitimacy of the Afghan government.

The election crisis, however, must end soon. Both the Afghan security situation and the economy are taking a heavy toll due to the instability created by the stalling five-month election process. Although Obama is forcing Abdullah and Ghani to swallow the national unity pill, the international community and the two candidates must look at this arrangement as a temporary solution. Realistically, this desperate move is simply a tourniquet to stop the bleeding from what objective analysts accept as a deeply-flawed election process that should have been anticipated and could have been prevented.

Politically, the international community failed to see the high potential for fraud in this year’s election, choosing instead to highlight an unrealistic narrative. For example, the White House called 2014 a "pivotal year" for Afghanistan, saying that "this is the year we will conclude our combat mission in [the country]," and highlighting that this would be the "first democratic transfer of power in [Afghan] history." But in its attempt to be overly positive, the U.S.-led coalition played right into the hands of the Taliban.   

From the Taliban’s perspective, this election has gone according to plan. In his October 2013 Eid message, leader Mullah Mohammed Omar described the elections as a "deceiving drama." Tactically, the Taliban tried to disrupt the elections, but strategically, they rejected their legitimacy and boycotted the vote, furthering their narrative that, in the end, Afghan opinions wouldn’t matter because the United States would pick the winner and adjust the results as necessary. In fact, lingering electoral fraud allegations and well-intentioned, but clumsy, foreign meddling in the election process all but validates the Taliban’s narrative, risking Afghanistan’s future more than most want to admit.

While the national unity government negotiations continue, the security situation is deteriorating. Insurgents continue to challenge Afghan National Security Forces in multiple parts of the country, and in some cases they are gaining ground. According to a New York Times article quoting an Afghan general speaking on the condition of anonymity, over 230 Afghan police officers and army soldiers have been killed since June 2013 in Helmand province’s Sangin district alone. In response, the spokesman for Helmand’s provincial governor offered a sharply lower casualty estimate, and Afghan security officials in Kabul downplayed the crisis. Despite this, it is hard to find denials that the insurgents are making significant gains in the key districts that were the focus of the 2009-2010 coalition surge.

Adding to the woes of a deteriorating security situation, the prolonged election process is taking a heavy toll on the Afghan economy. According to the World Bank, "[u]ncertainty surrounding the political and security transition in Afghanistan has led to a slowdown in economic growth in 2013, following strong growth in 2012." Besides security, the weak investment climate in Afghanistan has severely affected foreign and domestic businesses. In its 2014 Doing Business study, the World Bank ranked Afghanistan 164 out of 189 countries. Coupled with the financial impact associated with the withdrawal of coalition forces by 2016 and the likely drop in international development aid, the economic outlook for Afghanistan is bleak.

In political, security, and economic terms, the no victor/no vanquished model will not help Afghanistan get out of its current political predicament. Part of the problem remains that the United States has no long-term strategy when it comes to Afghanistan and thus no roadmap to help it navigate through these crises. Another example of the lack of grand strategy is the underwhelming, but long over-due response to the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Ironically, one could say that Obama’s new foreign policy doctrine contradicts his earlier canon of "don’t do stupid [stuff]." In the Afghan context, at best, this policy is something that offers a way out of the latest political crisis. At least for now, Abdullah and Ghani appear to be committed to a unity government. Realistically, however, their commitment to inclusive politics has limits.

On the one hand, Ghani wants the election results to be announced at the earliest opportunity; thus, leaving "no doubt in the credibility of the election." On the other hand, Abdullah is challenging the audit process, arguing that "(w)e will not accept the results that are on the basis of fraud." To move past this impasse, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry should be dispatched to Afghanistan to help resolve the differences between the candidates once and for all. In fact, rather than look to the country’s Independent Election Commission for answers, and thus perpetuate this sham of an election, the two candidates must work together — with Kerry’s help — to form an equal power-sharing interim government that repairs the damage that has been done.

To be clear, an interim government is far from an ideal situation and certainly not what Afghans had in mind when they went to the polls in April and June. Also, after 13 years of sacrifice in blood and treasure, most find it hard to believe that this political mess is the return on the coalition’s investment. But the perception of an illegitimate election process and a divisive outcome that favors one candidate over the other has set the conditions for a possible civil war. Afghanistan needs a capable government to lead it forward and combat its daunting economic challenges. While a national unity interim government will keep Afghanistan from regressing to the unfortunate civil war of the 1990s, ultimately, the election process must be reformed and a new legitimate election must be held at the earliest opportunity.

Under this interim arrangement, Afghanistan will likely have to have another election in two years, if Abdullah and Ghani follow through with the promise of a change to the Afghan constitution and transition to a parliamentary system. This will give a joint government sufficient time to put in place the proper election reforms so that the next contest reflects the will of the Afghan people, not the nefarious desires of a few bad apples. Stabilizing the country and curbing corruption should be national priorities, particularly after two highly-contested elections. But, this interim government should also focus on governing and shifting towards internationally-accepted business practices so that foreign investors feel more comfortable partnering with the Afghan government.

To accomplish these tasks, the two candidates should focus on their strengths, use the best human capital from both camps, and start tackling the difficult tasks ahead. Abdullah’s experiences during the fight against the Soviet army and the Taliban will go far in addressing the security threats to the Afghan state. Ghani’s experience as a World Bank executive and former finance minister make him a natural fit for overseeing the ministries that will help the Afghan economy recover. Ghani also oversaw the security transition from the coalition to the Afghan security forces so he is familiar with the insurgency and the means needed to combat it. Abdullah’s experience as Afghanistan’s senior diplomat will complement Ghani’s reform initiatives. In short, the two candidates balance each other well. While handicapped by Obama’s new foreign policy doctrine, they must work together to resolve the current crisis and move Afghanistan forward.

Once the dust settles from the election process, Afghanistan will need both of these capable politicians to work together. The international community and many Afghans have made mistakes since the 2009 elections and during the 2014 contest. For the time being, the United States and its NATO partners remain committed to supporting the country. However, the longer the election crisis persists, the more likely it is that the U.S.-led coalition will rush to the exit. So, even though the notion of an interim government is far from ideal, at this point, it is the only responsible choice left.

Ioannis Koskinas is a Senior Fellow with the International Security Program at New America, and a retired military officer who focuses on risk mitigation and economic development projects in South Asia.

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