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Afghanistan Election

Afghanistan diary: The making of Afghanistan’s fragile new leadership

The following is the first in a series of occasional reports on developments in Afghanistan by one of that country’s most distinguished former public officials. 

June 9, 2014

On Friday, a well-planned suicide bombing targeted presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah’s convoy in Kabul. The candidate escaped unharmed, but ten people were killed including three of his bodyguards and a young campaigner. No side has yet taken responsibility.

On the same day, the other presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani, speaking at a rally in Kandahar, invited the leaders of the armed opposition militias, the Taliban’s Mullah Omar, and a Hizb-e Islami faction headed by Gulbuddin Helmatyar, to enter into direct peace talks.

Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah

Afghan presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani shakes hands with rival candidate Abdullah Abdullah.

June 19, 2014

Millions of Afghans once again proved on June 14 – the day runoff elections for the country’s presidency were held – that despite terrorist threats and widespread low-level violence, they are vested in a democratic future. However, the entrenched elites affiliated to the two contending camps backing Abdullah and Ghani are at odds over ballot tallying, irregularities and procedural inconsistencies.

After demands for investigation of allegations of fraud and unlawful activity prior to and during the runoff, Abdullah finally cried foul on June 18 and told his monitors and staff to suspend their work with the Independent Election Commission (IEC). He requested a joint commission be set up under United Nations supervision to deal with outstanding issues before the process could proceed.

Abdullah, distrustful of the electoral system, is not only questioning the role played by individuals and institutions, but also the political motivations of the outgoing president, Hamid Karzai. Before agreeing to the runoff, Abdullah said he had received a certain level of assurance from Karzai, who played a key role in appointing the members of the IEC, pledging that the institution would remain impartial. The straw that broke the camel’s back was IEC chief Yusuf Nuristani’s refusal to sack the controversial head of the IEC Secretariat in charge of election operations, Zia ul-Haq Amarkhail, after a video was released showing Amarkhail on the scene of a police bust of ballots being illegally transported to stations outside the city on runoff day. Evidence has also surfaced in the media that ballot sheets were filled out prior to June 14 and used on election day in favour of Ghani from areas with a low turnout or no turnout at all.

Even the most basic count of voter numbers became controversial when Nuristani announced, without offering any definitive evidence, that around 8 million voters had participated in the June 14 balloting. It had been estimated by independent observers that participation was lower than the April 5 vote. The other issue that has rattled nerves is the unofficial claim by Ghani and IEC sources that he received anywhere between 200 and 400 percent more votes this time in areas where the population ratio is lower and where women seldom venture out. In the first round, Abdullah was reported to have received 2.97 million votes or 46% compared to Ghani’s 2.08 million or 32%.

Afghanistan Voting

Voters queuing up in front of a polling center in Kabul during the 2014 presidential election.

July 2, 2014

Under assault, Afghanistan’s nascent yet dynamic democracy is reaching a dangerous impasse, as claims of fraud and vote rigging remain unresolved. Sensing the gravity of the situation, US Secretary of State John Kerry called Afghan President Hamid Karzai on July 1 urging that Afghan electoral institutions “conduct a full and thorough review that ensures the Afghan people have confidence in the integrity of the electoral process”. Political distrust is at an all-time high. Since the president is to a large extent responsible for the selection of the election commissioners, he has come under direct scrutiny and is suspected of orchestrating the current dilemma.

Abdullah Abdullah broke relations with the Independent Election Commission after his proposals on ways of dealing with allegations of fraud were abruptly rejected by the electoral body on June 29. A day earlier, thousands of peaceful anti-fraud demonstrators descended on several Afghan cities demanding election re-runs in specific areas where the tally was said to have been much higher than the number of eligible voters, based on data produced by the Central Statistics Office and electoral precedence. Abdullah, who ran for the presidency against Karzai in 2009 and opted out of a runoff in that election because of distrust of the electoral system, appeared among the demonstrators vowing not to back down this time.

Meanwhile, the rival team led by Ashraf Ghani has tried to avoid being tarnished as the beneficiary of fraud, while maintaining cordial relations with the electoral commissioners. Ghani’s team came under pressure, however, when audio tapes acquired from unknown sources were released on three occasions by Abdullah’s campaign alleging collusion to commit fraud in several provinces. The phone recordings involve the IEC’s senior staff and local staff, provincial and local government officials, Ghani supporters, and in some instances staff from the office of the Chief of Staff to Karzai. The audio tape saga led to the resignation of the head of the IEC Secretariat, who in one tape is alleged to have used code words when he ordered a local official to “take the sheep up the mountain, stuff them, and bring them back”. While the tapes have yet to be authenticated by competent authorities, there is little doubt among pundits that they are genuine.

Karzai has agreed to a United Nations oversight role and has asked his two vice presidents — one of whom, Yunus Qanooni, is a former associate of Abdullah’s – to start mediation efforts between the two presidential contenders. While Karzai is scrambling to distance himself from the growing scandal, he is also trying to manage the electoral calendar to suit his own political strategy. He has said he expects partial results to be announced on July 2 and the final tally by July 22, in order to hand over power on August 2.

On July 1, the IEC postponed the announcement of the initial results set for July 2 and decided to recount votes from more than 2000 polling stations. Abdullah is insisting that any attempt to recount, re-run or adjudicate results needs to be undertaken according to established laws and have the endorsement and involvement of all sides. In addition, a UN technical team ought to be assigned to work alongside the competent Afghan groups responsible for the reviews.

August 12

The French called it “cohabitation”, the Kenyans termed it “a grand coalition cabinet”, and other countries have at times adopted what was called a “consensus decision-making” contingency measure through the formation of a unity government aimed at overcoming contentious elections or when faced with an imminent crisis. Such is the case today in Afghanistan after two rounds of inconclusive balloting. The second round is now the subject of a UN-supervised audit of 100 percent of the votes, using a 16-point checklist to physically inspect some 23,000 boxes of ballots

John Kerry in Afghanistan

US Secretary of State meeting with the Afghan presidential candidates (By U.S. Department of State [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Cognizant of the dangerous fallout caused by a broken electoral system that facilitated massive fraud, John Kerry has paid two visits to Kabul over the past six weeks to mediate between the leading contenders. During the latest intervention last week, following late night discussions, the two sides signed a document that spells out the parameters of a political deal, but leaves both the prickly details of power-sharing arrangements and the technical disagreements over the ongoing ballot audit to be sorted out. It is expected that a working group made up of 30 members will start negotiations on August 13. The objective is to resolve issues by the end of August before the NATO Summit in Wales (September 4 and 5). The devil will be in the details. On Tuesday, Ghani, under pressure from his “winner-take-all” allies like Ahmad Zia Massoud (a former vice president who joined Ghani’s campaign before the runoff election) poured cold water on the concept of joint partnership in which the president would share power with a chief executive.

August 23

For those of us who respect and believe in Afghans’ right to elect their leadership through a free, fair and transparent mechanism – understanding that it will not be perfect – in an inclusive manner, the travesty of the past year is nothing short of contempt for democratic values and the citizen’s constitutional prerogative to freely exercise his/her basic right in a country where so many want to believe in politics that represent them, and in a region of the world where so many have failed to be inclusive and representative.

What is most shocking is the fact that this conspiracy directly or indirectly involves some of the most notable “defenders” of human rights and the democratic order, who are in an unholy alliance to prevent Afghans from freely deciding the outcome of the elections in a clean and legal manner. As a result, a massive fraud was committed – estimated to be upward of two million votes cast illegally in the runoff in June.

As the outcome of the elections is to be determined over the next few days, and as efforts are under way to come up with a political deal of sorts, it is incumbent upon genuine defenders of democracy and those who care about a united, prosperous and free country, to stand firm and defend the lawful vote of the Afghan man and woman regardless of which side it was cast for.

More importantly, the two leading candidates need to realize that the concept of winner-takes-all is just not applicable in Afghanistan under current conditions when low intensity fighting has spread to 14 provinces (instigated by regional powers that back the Taliban), the government is non-functional, people are frustrated, and the economy is tanking. This is not about one person, one faction, or personal likes and dislikes. It is about the rights and aspirations of a nation, about a better future, and about laying down the right foundation.

September 11

Both Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah are seen as rational and thoughtful individuals, although with different temperaments and life experiences. They both have had years of involvement with governmental and non-governmental activities. Both men are products of a Kabul-based bureaucratic middle-class upbringing at a time when ethnicity was not a primary consideration.

Both were also very much influenced by their post-adolescent environments: Ghani, initially flirting with left-wing ideas and later an advocate of globalisation and institution-building; Abdullah living under a brutal communist takeover and later part of an Afghan-based Mujahideen structure. While Ghani spent most of his adult life in the United States, working as an academic and a World Bank anthropologist, Abdullah, an opthamologist by training, rose through the ranks of the anti-Soviet and later anti-Taliban movements, mentored by Ahmad Shah Massoud, the legendary Afghan resistance leader. Abdullah dealt mostly with security, political and diplomatic affairs. Obviously, Abdullah has a deeper connection with the internal events of the past 35 years, whereas Ghani came out of expatriate obscurity in the late 1990s when the Taliban ruled over most of Afghanistan. Ghani joined the Karzai administration after playing a role as a UN advisor at the Bonn conference in 2001 that established the post-Taliban interim administration.

Both men have expressed their commitment to democratic values and the rule of law. The next few days, however, will test their mettle. As the contenders see the end of the process approaching, they have recently drawn new battle lines.

Abdullah, who has accused the election commission of bias, presented another list of irregularities on Monday, claiming they have either not been addressed or have been manipulated to benefit his rival. He also announced that the political talks are in gridlock and he would decide on his future steps after wide-ranging consultations. Ghani, who was almost 15 points behind Abdullah in the first round and saw a spectacular jump of more than two million votes (out of an estimated eight million votes cast) in the runoff, has shied away from criticising the commission. But he told his political supporters on September 10 that he will not engage in deal-making outside Constitutional bounds. He added that a political accord to end the crisis should not result in a “two-headed” government. In other words, he would want to exercise the same level of authority as the outgoing president, disapproving any sort of functional parity with Abdullah.

The two sides have left the door open for further talks in case alternative proposals arise. One option would be that both portfolios – the president’s and the chief executive’s – carry specific duties, at times interlocking on critical issues, such as national security policy. Perhaps specialised committees of experts could help them with decision-making on domains such as the economy or social services, and a mediation group could step in where necessary. The president, as head of state and commander-in-chief, could preside over a smaller cabinet tasked with strategic decision-making, which could include heads of other government branches, while the chief executive acts as head of a consolidated council of ministers.

Failing to seek a practical solution and stubbornly insisting on a winner-takes-all scenario is not only dangerous, but it would prevent the “winner” of a fractured polity from unifying the country and governing effectively.

September 27

Afghanistan is facing the dawn of a new day as the country’s first democratic and peaceful transfer of power is expected to take place in a few days. This changing of the guard signifies the end of a mercurial era under Hamid Karzai’s watch, closure for a drawn-out and flawed presidential election that has produced a fragile yet novel partnership between two men (and their camps) to lead the country for the next five years, and a rare opportunity to heal a bruised polity and to concentrate on a myriad of challenges that the start-up government will have to tackle out of the gates.

To avoid further tension over an inconclusive audit and recount, Ashraf Ghani was announced as President while Abdullah Abdullah agreed to become Chief Executive with quasi-prime ministerial powers, according to an intensively deliberated agreement that was partly facilitated by the international community. The new structure moves the county one step away from the overly concentrated presidential system under Karzai, toward what is hoped to be a functional and calibrated mini-devolution, enhancing the checks-and-balances regime, and seen by some as better suited to Afghanistan’s current social and political conditions.

The truth about the inner workings of this election may, or may never, be revealed. But for now, harping on the arguments that there needed to be a clear winner and loser, or that democracy failed because results were withheld, sound a tad idealistic. No other middle course was left after the months of wrangling. With so much suspicion, the only practical solution was a power-sharing arrangement between the two contenders, who between them garnered the overwhelming majority of clean Afghan votes, estimated at more than six million.

All sides have to give the new leadership at least six months to find its footing, develop synergy, overcome adversities, adopt new team-building measures, and work in unison to govern in a more effective manner. The two sides are now working on filling high-level slots on a 50/50 basis, hoping to have a functioning cabinet of ministers as soon as possible. However, the challenge is not only to find the most suitable, accountable and competent human capacities to fill the portfolios on the civilian and security sides, but also to identify the priorities, to strategise, to set a work plan and to execute as a team, all the while aiming at diminishing the weight of ethnic and factional prejudice.

The burden rests on the shoulders of the two top leaders. Since they are ideologically not dissimilar in their worldview and are considered moderates, it should be easy for them to see eye-to-eye on issues such as fighting radicalism, promoting social and economic development, private sector growth, democracy, the rule of law, and human rights. More than anything else, Afghans expect good governance, accountability, social justice, and security. But the new generation, occupying a growing demographic space, is also seeking to preserve the gains of the past 13 years under Karzai, especially in the field of education, access to new technologies and, more importantly, a burgeoning media.

If President Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah could nurture team-work and team-spirit, engage the Afghan public (as well as international allies), set clear standards for policy planning and implementation, break with failed practices, and become respected role models, they can become each other’s best partners and navigate Afghanistan out of rough waters and onto calmer shores.

Omar Samad

Omar Samad is CEO of Silkroad Consulting LLC, and former Senior Advisor to Afghanistan’s Chief Executive. He served as Afghanistan’s ambassador to Canada from 2004 to 2009 and as ambassador to France from 2009 to 2011.

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