Amidst the unfolding crisis of Afghanistan’s runoff presidential election, there is increasing concern in two key capitals: Washington DC and Islamabad. President Barack Obama surprised many regional watchers by personally calling both candidates, Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, urging them to allow the investigation into fraud claims to go forward while also warning that any “extra-constitutional” actions taken would result in the end of US assistance to Afghanistan. The warning was particularly aimed at Abdullah, who told thousands of supporters he would not accept the results of the runoff, and further plans to declare victory to form a “parallel government”. Should such an event come to pass, it stands to shatter any Afghan unity.
The hostility between both doctors — Ghani holds a PhD in Cultural Anthropology from Columbia University and Abdullah is a trained ophthalmologist — erupted after the Abdullah camp released recordings of what it alleges are phone conversations between the Ghani camp and top election commission officials plotting to commit fraud for an outcome favouring Ghani. Afghanistan’s Chief Electoral Officer Ziaulhaq Amarkhil resigned and issued a statement declaring he did so “for the sake of trust in the process” while bitterly denying all allegations of fraud.
No matter how this controversy plays out, it is crucial that Afghans of all ethnicities and from all over the country feel they have a voice in Kabul, and that voice is respected. A cursory glance across history warns that governments that marginalise or subjugate whole segments of society are doomed to a volatile end. For a contemporary example, one need only look at the citadel of Islamic civilisation, Iraq. The government of President Noor al-Maliki has alienated crucial political factions, depriving the state of a united front to respond to a sinister enemy, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The US Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan Ambassador Jim Dobbins underscored that idea, stating “some degree of patronage allocation and power sharing is going to be essential for a new government to be formed that retains the support of all elements of society.”
Not all voices from Washington DC are as pragmatic. The former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defence for Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia, David Sedney recently stated the divisions forming on the political landscape are exactly in the interests of both the Taliban and Pakistan. Mr Sedney makes an egregious error in prescribing Pakistan’s desire. For the last several years, our political and military leadership have repeatedly called for an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned political process. It is anxiety, not ambition, which fuels Islamabad’s concerns about its turbulent neighbour.
Pakistan’s Foreign Office (FO) expressed as much again, saying it supports a peaceful democratic transition, emphasising that the preliminary results were not final and expressing the need for resolution of the crisis by stating: “It is our earnest hope that all related issues be resolved peacefully, through dialogue, in a timely manner and within the framework of Afghanistan’s constitution and laws.” Islamabad certainly does not have an interest in political divisions in Kabul; rather it has a long record of worrying about the possible blowback in Pakistan.
Sedney is not alone in his perspective on Pakistan. There are many who continue to view Pakistan as part of the problem rather than a partner for a viable future in the region. It will perhaps take a full political generation to ‘dehyphenate’ Af-Pak but, in the interim, our government must switch from a policy of constant reaction to steady preparation. Simply put, our governing institutions should be prepared to deal with any possible outcome in a post-election Afghanistan, in a post-2014 Afghanistan and in a post-2015 Afghanistan. We must be clear in our support of the Afghan process and engage with the government that forms to tackle a myriad pressing issues affecting the well being of both peoples.
To many, President Obama’s recent warning of cutting all US assistance strengthens the already existing suspicion among Afghans that the US will exit without ensuring peace and stability in the region, just as it did following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Perhaps Washington DC can make such an irresponsible threat because if it chooses to pivot to Asia or elsewhere, it very well can.
Islamabad sees the ground reality and must realise the truth: our future is intertwined with Kabul; stability in one encourages stability in the other. This bilateral relationship has no shortage of issues, ranging from sharing an increasingly dangerous border where several terror networks plot against both states and their civilians, eradicating the polio virus and ensuring access to adequate healthcare to struggling with low literacy rates to building our economies inspired by the regional cooperation embodied in the storied Silk Road, and much, much more. We need a dependable partner committed to a political process that represents all voices within Afghanistan.
It can begin with a peaceful outcome of this electoral crisis, with a self-aware government that understands the wisdom behind power sharing, and that the ruling party simply cannot take all.