June 17, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: Afghanistan Election Runoff and U.S. Exit Strategy

• The candidates in the June 14 presidential election runoff, Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani, represent contending factions

• Both have pledged to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement that will keep significant numbers of US troops in Afghanistan until 2016

• Many Afghan leaders, citing the collapse of security in Iraq, are concerned about the Administration’s plan to reduce US forces in Afghanistan to a minimal level after 2016

• The prisoner exchange for captured US soldier Bowe Bergdahl presents an opportunity for the next Afghan president to arrange a political settlement with the Taliban.

Election Runoff Likely Close and Contentious

The April 5, 2014 first round and June 14 runoff elections to succeed President Hamid Karzai have inspired optimism for a smooth transfer of power. Violence on both election days was minimal, although somewhat higher and more lethal during the June 14 runoff. Turnout was high in both rounds—about 7 million participated, or 60% of eligible voters.

In the first round, Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani won enough votes, 45% and 32%, respectively, to proceed to the runoff. Abdullah is of mixed Tajik and Pashtun ethnicity, but his career identifies him with the Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance. Ashraf Ghani is a Pashtun from the Ghilzai tribal confederation that dominates eastern Afghanistan. Abdullah’s showing in the first round appeared to establish him as the frontrunner. However, Pashtuns are the most numerous ethnic group and have almost always held the top slot in Afghan governments. They were expected to rally around Ghani in the runoff.

Polls and observers in Kabul predicted the runoff would be close, and, based on their own exit polling, both sides are claiming to have prevailed. However, preliminary results will not be announced until July 2, and certified results (after evaluating fraud complaints) will not be announced until July 22. Both camps have voiced accusations of election fraud, potentially setting up a scenario in which neither side accepts defeat. This could lead to extended and contentious negotiations or legal procedures to determine a winner, substantially delaying the transfer of power in Afghanistan. Both candidates have pledged to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA), but a long delay in doing so will complicate planning for the post-2014 “Resolute Support” security mission (the follow-on to the International Security Assistance Force).

If the runoff does come to a swiftly and widely accepted legitimate conclusion, the new president is to take office in early August. The US is expecting that the BSA will be signed shortly thereafter.      

President Obama Announces US Exit Strategy Prior to the Runoff   

The Obama Administration decided to build on the success of the April 5 first round to announce its long-awaited strategy for bringing the Afghanistan war to a conclusion. On May 27, the President announced:

The current level of 32,000 US forces in Afghanistan will drop to 9,800 at the end of 2014, joined by about 4,000 NATO partner troops to train the Afghanistan National Security Forces (ANSF). A few thousand of the US contingent will be Special Operations Forces that continue anti-al-Qaeda missions in Afghanistan.

The US force will shrink to about 5,500 at the end of 2015, based primarily in Kabul and at Bagram Airfield.

As of January 2017, the US force will be composed of several hundred military personnel under the authority of the US Embassy, engaged primarily in administering US military  assistance, training programs and joint exercises.

President Obama’s announcement appeared to be a nod to US military recommendations to keep a sizeable force of about 10,000 in Afghanistan after 2014, so as not to shake the confidence of ANSF. In adopting a smaller post-2016 footprint, the plan conformed with Administration advisers' recommendation to wind down military involvement in Afghanistan by the end of President Obama’s term.

Several experts and Afghan officials have expressed concern about the 2016 exit. They contend ANSF will not be sufficiently confident—or have the logistical capability—to fight the Taliban insurgency without direct US military support. Some former Administration defense officials said they preferred a conditions-based post-2016 presence, based on Afghan forces' readiness.

Increasing Focus on a Political Settlement

The US exit from Afghanistan instills greater urgency into the longstanding effort to forge a political settlement with the Taliban. Some experts assert that the incentive for a settlement is reduced by the US announcement because the Taliban can now wait out the US withdrawal. Others see the Taliban leadership as unwilling to strike a bargain and unable to rally broad internal support based on opposition to a foreign military presence. The Taliban has taken virtually no ground from the ANSF since it took the overall lead on security operations in June 2013.

The May 31 prisoner swap of five Taliban commanders from the US facility in Guantanamo Bay for US Sgt Bowe Bergdahl appears to support the view of those who see the Taliban as ready for a political bargain. The swap demonstrated that Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar remains in control of the organization and that he is willing to make and uphold deals. The US hope is that the prisoner swap can evolve into regular talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban on a political settlement. Both Abdullah and Ghani have said they welcome a political settlement. However, Abdullah, like most former Northern Alliance leaders, has tended to take a hard line against concessions to the Taliban and toward Pakistan. Ghani, like most Pashtuns from the eastern provinces, has tended to be more willing to accommodate the Taliban and the interests of Pakistan.

The Next Weeks

The June 14 runoff likely produced a close result that will take many weeks of vote fraud examination and negotiation to produce an outcome acceptable to all sides. The winner of the election is likely to enter into talks with the Taliban on a political settlement, provided its leaders demonstrate they have firm control over the movement. The US will likely design a series of ongoing security programs that will help reassure the ANSF and the Afghan leadership of a commitment to Afghan security after 2016 and avoid the results witnessed in Iraq.


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