Afghan President Hamid Karzai, in an attempt to ramp up pressure on presidential candidates Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, declared that he will leave office on September 2. “The Afghan government is totally ready for the inauguration ceremony of the new president on the date of September 2,” the presidential palace said in a statement. The announcement effectively places an ultimatum on the candidates to resolve their disagreements lest Afghanistan find itself without a political head in September. Currently, following an agreement brokered by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, all votes cast in the June 14 run-off election are being audited. Following the audit, the Afghan Independent Election Commission (IEC) will declare a winner.
The original transfer of power, an historic first for Afghanistan, was slated to take place on August 2 but allegations of electoral fraud derailed the original timeline. For the moment, neither candidate seems to be interested in taking a conciliatory stance or yielding to the other. With the results of the audit slated to be released soon, it is possible that tensions could flare up once again, delaying the presidential inauguration even further. According to Omar Zakhilwal, Afghanistan’s finance minister, the current deadlock over the presidential election is costing the Afghan economy “billions.” As a result of the electoral crisis, both foreign investment and government revenues have fallen, according to a BBC report.
Although the United States managed to broker the agreement that led to mutual acceptance of an audit of all the votes cast in the June 14 elections, it is unknown how the U.S. would react should the candidates continue to disagree about the results of the election following the audit. Once a winner is declared, it is of paramount importance that the losing candidate agree to the result and step aside. A prolonged political crisis will not only have important economic costs for Afghanistan, but could also threaten the country’s longer term stability.
For the United States, the protracted crisis over presidential succession represents a significant challenge to the conclusion of the long-stalled Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA). Hamid Karzai was expected to sign the agreement in late 2013 but ultimately refused to do so, arguing that it should be the responsibility of his successor. Earlier this year, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General Joseph F. Dunford Jr., testified that August 2014 was the latest realistic deadline for the agreement’s conclusion from a military logistics point of view. Without the BSA, the United States will have no legal basis with the Afghan government for keeping on a small troop contingency post-2014 for limited training and counter-terrorism purposes. Both Ghani and Abdullah support the BSA and would sign it as president, but the window of opportunity appears smaller than ever.