Afghanistan’s dangerous game of thrones

US diplomacy helps avert another civil war in Afghanistan for now. But will the country move beyond Byzantine politics?

Kerry has just managed to avert an electoral crisis in Afghanistan, writes Malikyar [EPA]

In contrast to his protracted, fruitless efforts with the Middle East and with Ukraine, US Secretary of State John Kerry has just managed to avert an electoral crisis in Afghanistan. Faced with a dispute that threatened to plunge the country into civil war, it took the United States’ top diplomat about 48 hours of intensive negotiations to broker an agreement between the two Afghan presidential candidates, Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah.

“Both candidates have committed to participate in and abide by the results of the largest and most comprehensive audit; every single ballot that was cast will be audited,” Kerry said.

Before rushing to Kabul on July 11, Kerry had said that the US has “enormous concerns” about Afghanistan. When Abdullah announced his intention to declare a parallel government if his demands for auditing his rival’s ballots were not met, US President Barack Obama called and warned him against violence and “extra-constitutional measures”. The consequences of stirring trouble, as Kerry bluntly put it, would be a halt in US financial and security aid to Afghanistan.

But how did we get to this critical point? To be able to untangle the Afghan election knot, it is crucial to backtrack and highlight the problematic areas in Afghanistan’s journey towards democracy.

Fragile stability

Since the fall of the Taliban government and massive international intervention, Afghans have been on a rollercoaster ride, at times rising to the heights of an ideal democracy and at others, lowered to survivalist war-time politics and tribal tactics that even the most “tribal” Afghans had forsaken. Still, in the past decade, the US-led international community and domestic Afghan players have consistently allowed expediency and a myopic view to shape their policies.

Even when US President George W Bush seemed keen on a programme of nation-building and a Marshall Plan-style engagement in Afghanistan, US efforts were firmly geared towards an approach that gave precedence to establishing and maintaining stability at the expense of instituting rule of law and justice. The few voices cautioning that without emphasis on the rule of law, stability would remain fragile fell on deaf ears.

The most notorious elements from the former Mujahideen elite were revived and empowered, with the inclusion of such characters in the post-Taliban political arrangement, and later turning a blind eye to their illegal ways of amassing fortunes in the name of stability. This has contributed to bringing Afghanistan to the present crisis as these figures continue to monopolise the political arena.

Tribal governance

When Hamid Karzai was picked by Washington to head the post-Taliban interim government in December 2001, he was an unknown quantity to most Afghans. They welcomed him because he was portrayed as representing the ageing former Afghan monarch, Zahir Shah, who was perceived as a neutral leader under whose reign the country had experienced a measure of modernisation, democratisation, and peace. Karzai was also embraced because his name was not associated in the national memory with the traumatic periods of war, chaos and oppression in recent Afghan history.

Karzai’s Byzantine style of governance was a clear indication that this year’s elections would go awry. Some Afghan analysts had predicted that Karzai would engineer the election in such a way that it would end in a crisis and the nation – as well as the international community – would turn to him to step in and resolve the debacle.

Today, however, most Afghan civil society activists describe Karzai as the greatest internal challenge to modernisation and healthy governance. Since the 2009 presidential elections fiasco – which was also marred with fraud – and Obama’s ascension to the US presidency, Karzai lost his privileged standing at the White House and is no longer considered a “reliable partner”. Meanwhile, the US launched efforts to come to an arrangement with the Taliban, by-passing the Afghan government.

Feeling cornered and facing the end of his final term in office, the Afghan president initiated his own attempts to make peace with the Taliban and began forging closer personal ties with neighbouring Iran and Pakistan. Karzai’s detractors would argue that he has also upped his Machiavellian tactics in domestic politics to prolong his political relevance.


To many, Karzai’s Byzantine style of governance was a clear indication that this year’s elections would go awry. Some Afghan analysts had predicted that Karzai would engineer the election in such a way that it would end in a crisis and the nation – as well as the international community – would turn to him to step in and resolve the debacle. Many had dismissed this prediction as yet another conspiracy theory. But, from the drafting of the new Elections Law, which on Karzai’s insistence, barred UN specialists from serving on the Independent Elections Commission (IEC), to key appointments on the two election bodies, ie, the IEC and the Elections Complaint Commission (ECC), to a highly questionable vetting process of the candidates, the process clearly indicated malfeasance.

Fraud and violations that took place in the first round were disregarded. Government officials, including high ranking governors and provincial police chiefs who, in violation of the law, openly took sides were not penalised. The number of accounts that point to IEC and ECC taking their orders from the presidential palace are simply too overwhelming to be dismissed as propaganda. Nor is it easy to ignore the fact that Karzai personally asked a number of leaders, including prominent Mujahideen notables and failed presidential candidates, to go to either Abdullah’s or Ghani’s camp.

Abdullah’s inflated ballot figures in the first round remained unchecked despite evidence of fraud presented to the commission by his opponent’s team, leading him to believe he would be the undisputed winner. The seemingly great number of fraudulent votes in favour of Ghani cast during the runoff is widely believed – including by Abdullah – to have been arranged by Karzai. However, by Ghani team’s estimation, even after a rigorous audit, he will have a higher percentage. The strong conviction of both candidates, thus, launched a dangerous game of thrones.

Kerry in Kabul over Afghan poll row

Curiously, all this happened under the noses of the international community’s diplomatic representatives in Afghanistan. Yet, the world continued praising the Afghan elections as a magnificent success and commending Karzai for overseeing it. Were they hoping that all those missteps would lead to a peaceful albeit illogical conclusion? Or, as James Dobbins, US special envoy to Afghanistan/Pakistan, recently indicated, does the world believe that Afghanistan does not deserve anything better than a primitive “patronage” system?  

Importance of details

Dobbins recently proposed the formation of a coalition government on the basis of “patronage allocation and power sharing”. Everyone agrees that under the circumstances, a winner-takes-all solution is no longer viable. Coalition governments based on a mere division of positions and privileges among the top tier of the political elite and patronage systems have proved to hinder the democratisation process.

Fortunately, the broad outline of an agreement that was announced by Kerry on July 12 is closer to the solution some Afghans had proposed at the outset of the electoral impasse. That is, agreement on the technicalities of recounting the votes, commitment to accept the final result and the winner agreeing to bring in competent and well-reputed members of the losing team to form a “government of national unity”.

Although the crisis seems to be averted for now with a general agreement between the two candidates, the devil is in the details. The agreement entails a recount of all ballots. They must now agree on the mechanics, such as including international elections experts in both commissions and establishing revised criteria for fraud detection. Crucially, both sides must also agree on the definition of a “government of national unity”.

In the lexicon of most Afghan politicians, especially the former Mujahideen, it is usually interpreted as power-sharing among the same personalities who have dominated the Afghan political scene for the past three decades. An updated and more functional definition would require the inclusion of a number of competent and well-reputed members of the losing team into the new government. While the former is certain to create yet another dysfunctional government, the latter formula would ensure sharing of responsibilities as well as power.

While Afghan politicians are determining the details of the agreement, the country’s international supporters must continue to pressure the candidates as well as the outgoing president to work constructively towards solutions that would take the country forward on the course of democratisation and modern governance. Afghans deserve better than tribal politics and patronage systems. They have demonstrated their readiness through their courageous participation in the elections.

Helena Malikyar is an Afghan political analyst and historian.