Today, Afghanistan entered into a political crisis when both President Ashraf Ghani and his political rival Abdullah Abdullah took oaths to become the new presidents of the country. Last month, the Independent Election Commission (IEC) declared the incumbent Afghan President Ashraf Ghani the winner of the fourth presidential election; Ghani won by securing over fifty percent of the total votes cast and the runner-up was the Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, who attained 39.52 percent of votes.
Unsurprisingly, Abdullah declined to accept the results again and called the results fraudulent. Prior to the presidential election, a majority of potential nominees pressured Ghani to hold the next election no matter if the necessary arrangements and conditions were viable. After the 2014 elections, turmoil led to the formation of a National Unity Government, which was brokered by the then U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. This time, Ghani tried some pragmatic steps to bolster the confidence of his political rivals by amending the Afghan election law to enable the registered presidential candidates to take part in the appointments of new commissioners for both election commissions. With that, Ghani tried to assure the presidential candidates that he neither cherry-picked the new commissioners nor did he have any influence over them.
Both Ghani and Abdullah remained in office during and after the election, and their supporters attempted to check and balance each other to prevent the possibility of electoral fraud. Despite the changes in the leadership of the two commissions and agreement on the electoral procedures, such as the usage of biometric machines and verification of national identity cards to ensure the results of election would acceptable by all candidates, Abdullah relentlessly refused the final results – calling it a coup against Afghan democracy.
Interestingly, it was the third presidential election in a row in which Abdullah remained the runner-up candidate and eventually declined to accept the final results by scapegoating the fragile electoral system for gaining power. This time, the closed-door bargaining didn’t cajole Abdullah to refrain from staging a parallel oath ceremony – proclaiming himself as the president of an inclusive government in Sapidar palace, within the close vicinity of Arg, the Afghan presidential palace, where Ghani officially took an oath for a second term in presence of government high officials and foreign diplomats including the U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. Chargé d’Affaires Ross Wilson, U.S. and NATO forces commander General Scott Miller, and dozens of ambassadors from different countries. Mujib Mashal, the New York Times’s correspondent reported that no senior diplomat was seen at the ceremony where Abdullah took the oath of office, which was administered by a religious cleric.
The extra-constitutional maneuvers of Abdullah and his party have not only jeopardized the legitimacy of incoming government, but also disrupted the internal affairs of Afghanistan and mark a clear violation of Afghan election law and the penal code. Based on the article 88 of Afghan electoral law, the election was officially concluded when IEC granted the certificate to Ghani as the winner of fourth presidential election. Article 427 of the Afghan penal code clearly stipulated that anyone who disrupts the election process should be sentenced to a moderate term of imprisonment. Likewise, article 238 of the penal code notes that any armed uprising or conspiracy against the government of Afghanistan for seizing of power is an act of national treason. Abdullah’s self-claimed presidency was against the existing Afghan laws, which created a political fiasco that undermined the legitimacy of new Afghan government ahead of the intra-Afghan peace talks.
Apart from political disputes, some local and international experts have also underlined that the new government might not have a strong mandate to represent Afghanistan given the low turnout of voters. Voter turnout was at a record-low: only 1.8 million voters cast their ballots out of the total 9.6 million eligible voters in a country of approximately 32 to 36 million. The experts are statistically correct, but they neglected the primary reasons for the low turnout: the imminent insecurity in most part of Afghanistan since the Taliban spread fear that they will punish those who cast votes.
Considering the above, albeit the low turnout, a proportionate number of voters from all provinces of Afghanistan cast their ballots to safeguard the nascent and fragile democracy in Afghanistan. Thus, any assumptions to question the legitimacy or mandate of new Afghan government merely because of the low turnout should be refuted. In the same notion, the article 87 of Afghan election law states that “a low turnout of people in some of the electoral constituencies or polling centers shall not mean jeopardizing the principles of free and universal elections”.
On the contrary, the legitimacy of the new Afghan government was greatly undermined when the U.S. special envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, overtly intervened to convince Ghani to postpone his inauguration amid the signing ceremony of U.S.-Taliban deal in Doha on February 29, 2020. On the same day, U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, in the presence of NATO’s secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg, signed a joint declaration with Ghani in Kabul to agree on terms how to make peace with the Taliban. Both the U.S. deal with the Taliban and the joint declaration with the Afghan government focused on four identical issues to end the America’s longest war, but the terms and timeline in these documents were asymmetrical. For instance, in the deal, the swap of 5,000 prisoners was stated as a pre-condition to start the intra-Afghan peace talks on March 10, 2020, whereas in the joint declaration, the total number of prisoners and the timeline for release weren’t stated. The document stated the prisoner release will be a confidence-building measure for reaching a political settlement and achieving a permanent and sustainable ceasefire, which will be a protracted and phased process. Such disparities in the terms of these documents became more contentious when Ghani declined to release any prisoners, which has become one of the first deviations from the U.S.-Taliban deal.
In addition to the prisoner swap, the other terms of U.S.-Taliban deal also gave significant leverage to the Taliban. In the deal, the Afghan government was referred as the “Afghan side,” in which the U.S. government ostensibly endorsed the Taliban’s narrative as they don’t recognize the Afghan government a legitimate government. More importantly, despite multiple references in the deal that the U.S. government doesn’t recognize the Taliban as a state, the U.S. government took state-level commitments from the Taliban – namely not to provide visas, passports, travel permits, or grant asylum and residence to those that will be threatening the U.S. and its allies, and prevent them from using Afghan soil. Such commitments gave the Taliban significant leverage that they clearly noted by celebrating the deal as a “historical victory” against the foreign invaders.
After signing the deal, the Taliban escalated their attacks on Afghan government to impose pressure on Ghani to agree with their pre-conditions for the intra-Afghan peace talks. Given the new political crisis in Kabul, the legitimacy of new Afghan government and legacy of nascent and fragile Afghan democracy are at stake. The United States, as the strategic ally of Afghanistan, should extend a helping hand to resolve the conundrum created by Afghan politicians, and also ponder some of the terms of the recent deal to ensure the Taliban becomes as subsidiary of new government, not overtaking it. The real challenge lies ahead of both the U.S. and new Afghan governments on how to revive the legitimacy of new Afghan government and to ensure the deal with the Taliban won’t undermine the achievements of past 18-years.
Najibullah Noorzai is a Washington, D.C., based analyst.