The stakes in the presidential election dispute — whether Hamid Karzai will continue to call the shots in Afghanistan

Developing

An old adage is, “Don’t change horses when you are crossing a stream.”

There is an important gloss on that adage, however. The fuller version is as follows:

“Don’t change horses when you are crossing a stream, unless your horse is drowning.”

OPINION

For background, see “Karzai reportedly involved in massive fraud favoring Ghani in Afghan presidential run-off,” The Trenchant Observer, August 23, 2014, and the articles cited there.

Sometimes we need to pull pack from a mere analysis of the events of the day, and look for significance in the broader pattern of events which form the context for today’s developments.

At the moment, a dramatic showdown is taking place in Afghanistan over who the country’s next leader will be.

Hamid Karzai and his government are reliably reported as having been deeply involved in a massive electoral fraud favoring Ashraf Ghani, whose vote total in the June 14 presidential run-off election, was inflated by as much as two million votes (out of a reported eight million votes cast).

Following the 2009 presidential elections, Karzai retained his hold on the presidency through massive fraud which he himself reportedly orchestrated.

It seems quite evident that Karzai intends to continue making the big decisions for the government even after leaving office, with Ashraf Ghani emerging as president from the current second round elections.

Karzai has built a new mansion right next to the Presidential Palace to help ensure he is involved in critical decisions.

If Ghani emerges as president, Karzai and the “Kabul Cabal” which for the last 12 years has been running Afghanistan, a country famously labeled “Corrupt-stan” by long-time war correspondent Dexter Filkins, will continue in power.

Karzai will continue to exercise his influence behind the scenes, as the brilliant master of warlord and tribal and other alliances he has been up until now.

Looking at Afghanistan’s recent history since the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001, it is clear that the United States—intentionally or unintentionally—has enabled the “Kabul Cabal” to grow and thrive.

For example, the CIA has been an active supporter of Karzai over the years, with many high-level officials on the Company’s payroll, and bags of cash with millions of dollars being delivered directly to the Presidential Palace for Karzai’s unrestricted use.

If Abdullah emerges as the victor, there will be a changing of the guard, a handover of power from the “Kabul Cabal” to something new, potentially marking a milepost on the path to a return to the democratic project in Afghanistan.

In 2009, the U.S. pressured Abdullah into withdrawing from the second round election that was to occur, following a “recount” of the votes in the first round which reduced Karzai’s share to less than 50%. At the time there were negotiations over some kind of a power-sharing arrangement similar to that under discussion now.

In the end, the U.S. withdrew its support for the negotiations.

An interesting report at time by a reporter with close ties to Pakistan’s army and intelligence services, Syed Saleem Shahzad, asserted that support for Abdullah was withdrawn as part of a U.S. deal reached by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Islamabad with Pakistani military leaders, under which the U.S. would withdraw its support for Abdullah and the negotiations in exchange for Pakistani assistance in setting up and carrying out peace negotiations with the Taliban.

The reporter was subsequently assassinated in an operation that was reportedly orchestrated by Pakistani military and intelligence officials.

Pakistan has traditionally opposed Abdullah and the Northern Alliance which he once helped lead, because of india’s ties with and support for the Alliance.

While all of this is very complicated, and requires some historical memory or research to fully understand, the drama undeway at the moment is fairly clearcut:

If the current “audit” of the second-round vote is allowed to proceed to completion, it is quite likely that Abdullah will emerge as the winner and have an irresistible claim on the presidency.

Karzai is now pushing hard to cut short that process, and to inaugurate a new president within a week or two. That president could only be selected as a result of the current negotiating process.

A pretext for a quick inauguration of the new president is that it would enable him to go to the NATO Summit which is to be held in Wales on September 4-5, in order to secure continued NATO assistance going forward after December 31, 2014.

However, prospects for stability in Afganistan will turn much more on the perceived legitimacy and nature of the new government than on whether a new president can go to Wales in early September.

For any new government to be able to withstand the challenge from the Taliban after most U.S. and ISAF Forces have been withdrawn, and foreign economic assistance greatly reduced, it will need to have legitimacy and be viewed by the Afghan people as the true product of the elections held on June 14.

It is highly doubtful that without large-scale military and financial support, the “Kabul Cabal” can continue to hold the country together and resist the advances of the Taliban, unless Ghani emerges as the true winner of the run-off after all of the votes in the “audit” have been fully accounted for.

At the same time, it is hard to see the “Kabul Cabal” ceding power in the absence of a mighty push from the U.S. and NATO requiring the real results of the second-round presidential election to be observed.

The composition of the next government in Afghanistan will have a decisive impact on whether or not the country can be held together, and whether or not the Taliban can be denied the victories for which they have been waiting and preparing.

NATO can agree to provide further aid to Afghanistan after the Wales summit in early September. Conference deadlines should not be allowed to drive policy on Afghanistan.

U.S. President Barack Obama needs to get it right this time, even if it means overriding the recommendations of CIA Director John Brennan.

This is likely to be Obama’s — and America’s — last chance to save the Afghan project.

The Trenchant Observer

About the Author

The Observer
"The Trenchant Observer" is edited and published by The Observer, an international lawyer who has taught International Law, Human Rights, and Comparative Law at major U.S. universities, including Harvard, Brandeis, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Kansas. He is a former staff attorney at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States (IACHR), where he was in charge of Brazil, Haiti, Mexico and the United States, and also worked on complaints from and reports on other countries including Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. As an international development expert, he has worked on Rule of Law, Human Rights, and Judicial Reform in a number of countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and the Russian Federation. In the private sector, The Observer has worked as an international attorney for a leading national law firm and major global companies, on joint ventures and other matters in a number of countries in Europe (including Russia and the Ukraine), throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and in Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Japan. The Trenchant Observer blog provides an unfiltered international perspective for news and opinion on current events, in their historical context, drawing on a daily review of leading German, French, Spanish and English newspapers as well as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other American newspapers, and on sources in other countries relevant to issues being analyzed. The Observer speaks fluent English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish, and also knows other languages. He holds an S.J.D. or Doctor of Juridical Science in International Law from Harvard University, and a Doctor of Law (J.D.) and a Master of the Science of Law (J.S.M.), from Stanford University. As an undergraduate, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree, also from Stanford, where he graduated “With Great Distinction” (summa cum laude) and received the James Birdsall Weter Prize for the best Senior Honors Thesis in History. In addition to having taught as a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, The Observer has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs (CFIA). His fellowships include a Stanford Postdoctoral Fellowship in Law and Development, the Rómulo Gallegos Fellowship in International Human Rights awarded by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and a Harvard MacArthur Fellowship in International Peace and Security. Beyond his articles in The Trenchant Observer, he is the author of two books and numerous scholarly articles on subjects of international and comparative law. Currently he is working on a manuscript drawing on the best articles that have appeared in the blog.