July 30, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: Election Dispute Clouds Afghanistan’s Future

• The full vote recount agreed to by presidential candidates Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani has been slowed by distrust, and differing expectations on a US-brokered power sharing arrangement

• The Afghan uncertainty is complicating US and NATO planning for a post-2014 security mission, as a key NATO summit approaches in early September
• With some parallels to post-US force era in Iraq, Afghanistan’s political turmoil risks the legacy of US and allies’ blood and treasure in stabilizing the country and preventing terrorist sanctuary
• The political uncertainty also has negative impact for the domestic economy and foreign investment—and may provide incentives for opportunistic neighbors to ‘shape’ Afghanistan to their advantage.

The international community was optimistic about the post-Hamid Karzai period in Afghanistan, after voter turnout in both the April 5 first round and June 14 runoff was high and Taliban violence was minimal.

The optimism turned to concern that the entire US and NATO stabilization effort was vitally threatened when the electoral atmosphere changed between ex-Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah (identified with the Tajiks, Afghanistan’s second largest community) and ex-Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani (a member of the Pashtun community, Afghanistan’s largest). Preliminary runoff results released July 7 showed Abdullah trailing Ghani 56% to 44%–even though Abdullah had led Ghani by 17% after the first round (in a field of eight candidates). Direct intervention by President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry dissuaded Abdullah’s supporters from declaring victory and storming key locations in Kabul and elsewhere–actions that would have caused all-out political breakdown.

On July 12, Secretary Kerry brokered an apparent resolution in which all 23,000 ballot boxes would be recounted and the “loser” of the election would be appointed “chief executive” of government–a power-sharing arrangement to be later enshrined in the constitution.

By the end of July, the Kerry-brokered understandings had frayed substantially as disputes between Abdullah and Ghani over recount supervision and vote validation standards halted the recount on several occasions. The recount was originally expected to take three weeks but could now continue well into September. And the two camps clearly differ in their expectations for the power-sharing arrangement. Abdullah interprets the agreement as providing for an eventual position of prime minister that would divide power between the Pashtuns and the Tajiks and other minorities. Ghani envisions the arrangement as an informal commitment to an inclusive government in which all communities are represented but ultimate power remains vested in the presidency.

Analysis and Implications

The election dispute has substantially clouded the outlook for the post-2014 international security mission, called “Resolute Support,” which will initially involve some 10,000 US troops and about 4,000 NATO partner forces. The primary mission will be training Afghan forces but also includes counter-terrorism operations for 2,000 US Special Operations Forces. The mission is contingent on Afghanistan’s signing a “Bilateral Security Agreement” (BSA) with the United States (and a similar document with NATO) that provides immunity from Afghan law. President Karzai negotiated the BSA but insisted his successor sign it, and both Ghani and Abdullah have pledged to do so. However, the longer time goes on without an election winner, the less the time available to plan the post-2014 force.

The NATO countries had hoped to finalize their troop contributions at the September 4-5 NATO summit meeting, but the recount delays render it unlikely there will be a new president or signed BSAs by that time. The US military has the capacity to plan its Afghanistan deployment on short notice, but NATO partner forces, such as that of Germany, do not. NATO diplomats say that if the Afghanistan-NATO BSA is not signed by early fall, NATO contributions will likely be limited to Kabul only–a more narrow mission than envisioned. That outcome would place increased pressure on US forces outside Kabul, particularly after the Afghanistan footprint shrinks to about 5,000 at the start of 2015.

The uncertainties injected into the post-2014 international security mission are reinforcing the longstanding anxieties about continued Taliban strength; the effect of the international drawdown on Afghanistan’s economy; and the policies and activities of Afghanistan’s neighbors. Election-related political uncertainty might be a contributing factor in the increased Taliban activity in Helmand and Qandahar provinces and on Kabul airport over the past few weeks. Political rifts in Kabul also reduce the likelihood that the Taliban will reconcile with the Afghan government.

Economically, Afghan businessmen fear that the country is entering a new phase of civil conflict. Many are moving portions of their money and businesses out of the country. The job market has declined significantly and incomes are falling. Fearing an uncertain security situation, foreign investors, such as China and India, are proceeding slowly on the large copper and mining projects they have committed to–most of which are already behind schedule. The large Chinese investment in the copper field at Mes Aynak still, after four years, has yet to actually mine any copper.

The election dispute is also causing Afghanistan’s neighbors to rethink their positions. Once anticipating a relatively stable post-2014 Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, India, and the Central Asian states all committed to taking no steps to meddle in Afghanistan’s internal affairs. However, with Afghanistan’s communities now at odds, these neighbors have incentive to try to shape Afghanistan to their advantage by supporting their factional protégés.


As has proven the case in Iraq, the stable political order that existed as the US and partners wound down their military is at risk in Afghanistan–as is the legacy of the approximately 2,200 US military deaths and well over $600 billion spent in the country. It is unlikely that either Ghani or Abdullah will quickly or easily accept a vote recount result that declares the defeated candidate. If one does accept a loss, it is improbable the winning candidate will share power to any significant extent. There is substantial potential for civil conflict and possibly some violence, although US diplomacy and the threat of withholding US foreign aid could limit the infighting.

In an effort to avoid the political and security collapse witnessed in Iraq in 2014, the US and NATO will–despite the Afghan political rift–follow through on their post-2014 troop commitments. With Iraq again in mind, the Obama Administration is likely to alter its current plans to reduce the US military presence to a symbolic level of about 1,000, under the authority of the US embassy, after 2016. The Administration is likely to decide that more forces than that will be needed to keep ethnic and political divisions contained, to prevent the collapse of the Afghan security forces, and to mitigate Pakistan and Iran meddling in Afghanistan’s internal politics.


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