Last spring, after a peaceful first round of voting in Afghanistan’s presidential election, there was hope that a runoff between Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani would yield a clear winner. This result would allow the Afghan government and the Americans to chart a clear path forward while securing a long-term security agreement that would keep a residual, stabilizing American force in the country to secure war gains.
Some four months later, it’s clear that any hope of a quick resolution was vastly overestimated.
Despite pledges to work together to build a coalition government, Abdullah and Ghani are locked in a battle for control of Afghanistan. Their stated goal is to form a temporary government that can work out the long-term security agreement with the American government. But with Karzai set to leave office at the end of the month, there are new doubts that this can be accomplished in just a week and a half.
Complicating the already tangled situation are new threats from Afghan officials with close ties to the military who say in the absence of strong central leadership, Afghan security forces would need to step in to fill the power void left by Karzai.
“But what will happen if the legal institutions are not working?” said Rangin Dafdar Spanta, national security adviser to President Hamid Karzai, told The New York Times.
If the military steps in, it would amount to a de facto coup, although The Times claims no one who is backing the military will call it that. It also raises the possibility of a civil war similar to the one fought for Afghanistan in the 1990s. That war left the power vacuum that allowed the Taliban to take control of the country, creating a safe haven for terrorists.
The situation is so out of hand that Karzai, who has long been an extreme (some suggest unhinged) voice in the debate over the future of Afghanistan, sounds like the voice of reason.
“I hope we stay united... so that our country is led toward peace and prosperity," Karzai said in a speech in Kabul on Tuesday. "I hope that Afghanistan's election has a result soon. The people are waiting impatiently for the result.”
“I hope both of our brothers... reach an agreement so that Afghanistan soon has an inclusive government in which nobody is left out,” Karzai added.
U.S. Powerless to Effect Change
Secretary of State John Kerry and U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan James Cunningham have both been trying to influence negotiations but have largely been unsuccessful. For instance, when the deal to split power was structured earlier this month, Kerry seemed confident that it would hold.
“I don’t think anybody here would doubt this is a major step ahead for Afghanistan,” Kerry said at an August 8 press conference announcing the deal. “Dr. Abdullah and Dr. Ghani and their campaigns have made a profound decision today.”
As the deal was falling apart, however, Cunningham struck a different tone, saying that the measure of success would be to have a power-sharing agreement when Karzi leaves office by the end of the month. Without a deal in place, it would be difficult for NATO allies to discuss shared responsibilities when they meet for their annual summit on Sept. 4-5 in Wales.
“We’re doing everything we can to speed up the audit [of the runoff election results] and to encourage the political discussions between the candidates and their teams to try to prepare, if we can, to achieve that goal. If we can’t, it will be a lost opportunity. But it’s possible,” Cunningham said in an interview with Voice of America.
It would be more than a lost opportunity; it would create an environment where there is a very real chance of civil war.
The last time civil war erupted in Afghanistan the Taliban came to power. With the rise of ISIS in Iraq, the United States now faces the possibility that after two wars, trillions of dollars and the loss of thousands of lives, the lands American soldiers fought for could once again fall into the hands of terrorists.
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