A week after Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission (IEC) announced incumbent President Ashraf Ghani the winner of last September’s hotly contested but little attended presidential election, the U.S. State Department issued a statement acknowledging the announcement though stopping far short of congratulating Ghani.
Washington’s core interest is in maintaining the weeklong “reduction in violence” with the Taliban scheduled to conclude with the signing of an agreement on February 29. The agreement, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Tuesday, would be “for a conditions-based and phased troop withdrawal and for the commencement of intra-Afghan negotiations.”
A press statement attributed to State Department spokesperson Megan Ortagus about the election results is careful in its choice of words:
The United States notes the announcement on February 18, 2020 by the Independent Election Commission of Afghanistan on the results of the presidential election held September 28, 2019 in favor of President Ashraf Ghani. Concerns have been raised about the election process. We expect these concerns to be handled in accordance with constitutional and legal procedures.
The statement goes on to call on the new government to be “inclusive” and “reflect the aspirations of all Afghans,” but warns against “efforts to establish parallel government structures.”
After the IEC’s announcement, Ghani’s opponents — most prominently Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah — cried foul and fraud. Abdullah called the IEC’s announcement a “coup” and vowed to establish his own “inclusive” government. Both men declared victory and announced plans for their inaugurations. Yesterday, Reuters reported that the United States, via U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, had urged Ghani to postpone his inauguration, which had been set for February 27 and State’s statement today thanks the Afghan government (presumably Ghani) for agreeing to do so.
The State Department’s statement closes with a plea: “It is time to focus not on electoral politics, but on taking steps toward a lasting peace, ending the war with the Taliban, and finding a formula for a political settlement that can serve the interests of all of this country’s citizens through intra-Afghan negotiations we expect will begin in March.”
The Afghan government has struggled with issues of legitimacy since it was formed; the Taliban has long said the government in Kabul was a foreign puppet. The Afghan government has existed in an extra-legal state since 2014’s National Unity Government kicked the political can down this very road. The dreadfully low turnout figure — less than 20 percent — for the September poll means that Ghani’s barely-there majority holds no solid mandate. As Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili and Mohammad Qadam Shah pointed out last week, “Ghani was reelected with support from fewer than 10 percent of eligible voters: 923,592 votes out of a population of more than 30 million.”
At one point in time it was assumed that when this moment came — the moment for intra-Afghan talks — there would be two sides to the table: the Afghan government in Kabul and the Taliban. But under the current state of affairs, the table will need at least three sides and arguably more to be truly representative of the various Afghan factions. And herein lies the real conundrum: The more people at the table, the more difficult consensus will be to achieve. But leaving anyone significant out will in all likelihood (and if the past is any precedent) undermine any sort of peace that comes from the process.
It’s clear the Afghan government, as we’ve known it since 2014, will not survive long. But what comes next is a worrying uncertainty.