The sudden appearance of the US Senator John McCain in the Hindu Kush Mountains last weekend reminds the regional powers that there is more to Afghanistan's presidential election than meets the eye.
His mission was to try and bring about reconciliation between the two contenders in the runoff -- Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, former foreign minister, and Dr. Ashraf Ghani, former finance minister and ex-World Bank official -- who are locked in an acrimonious tussle over the election results.
Ghani's camp claims he won the election by at least one million votes, whereas Abdullah questions the legitimacy of the results, which he alleges to be the outcome of extensive gerrymandering by using the governmental machinery.
McCain himself is not new to the frontline. He is a frequent visitor to Syria's neighboring countries to shore up the sagging regime change agenda against President Bashar Al-Assad. His missions to Ukraine aimed to ensure that the gains of the regime change in February did not get dissipated. His Afghan mission may seem on surface to be somewhat atypical; he is cast in the role of an umpire in democratic election rather than a ‘cold warrior’. But in reality he was undertaking a typical McCain mission in Afghanistan – namely, to remove the road block that delays the signing of the US-Afghan security pact leading to the establishment of US military bases and advancing the ‘pivot’ to Asia.
McCain held hour-long meetings each with Abdullah and Ghani. Later at a press conference in Kabul, McCain, who was accompanied by Senator Lindsey Graham, stressed the need of a speedy resolution of the political impasse that has delayed the announcement of the election result. Both McCain and Graham are strong advocates of the establishment of US military bases in Afghanistan and the continued presence of American troops in that country for the foreseeable future. Both are critical of President Barack Obama's plan to withdraw the US troops more or less completely by end-2016.
McCain reiterated for the benefit of the domestic audience in the US that it is «incredibly dangerous» for Obama to order a withdrawal of American troops in the prevailing circumstances. On the other hand, he warned the Afghans that if the political deadlock in Kabul is not resolved, «this would put not only the political environment of Afghanistan into a crisis, but also could weaken American support for the continued process».
Graham warned that without a constitutional solution to the present deadlock in Kabul, Washington cannot continue to engage Afghanistan in a constructive manner. He added, “From an American point of view, we have bases over here that protect the homeland [US]». He stressed the importance of the US having military and intelligence presence in Afghanistan.
The curious part is that both McCain and Graham have acknowledged that the runoff has been a flawed one and that ‘auditing’ of the votes becomes necessary, but all the same they also want the results to be announced quickly. The only way out now lies in a conciliatory direct meeting between Abdullah and Ghani where a political solution could be found.
However, Ghani has toughened his stance. While he won't oppose an audit, he nonetheless wants the result of the runoff to be forthwith announced on Monday. He called a press conference in Kabul in the weekend and said, « We believe in transparent elections and we welcome the auditing, but it should not result in the delay of the election results... The electoral timeline cannot be changed. We have been committed to the process and the process has to be followed. For the sake of the nation we accepted the delay for a few days (but) we cannot accept any more delays».
Ghani expressed optimism that McCain and Graham would have persuaded Abdullah «to re-enter the process». Ghani made it clear, however, that he won’t settle for any power-sharing deal with Abdullah. He was unequivocal: «People are concerned and the question they have been asking is if we have made any deal. Our answer is clear: we have not made any deal. We assure the people that we will not betray their votes. Our commitment is to defend national interests, not personal interests».
All things taken into account, a smooth transition of power in Afghanistan appears problematic unless some sort of deal is worked out. Even if a deal is stuck – and politically speaking, that may seem the right approach – it still remains an unlawful method of transfer of power. The bottom line is that the credibility of the election has already got eroded and that in turn could weaken the authority of the next president.
In the worst-case scenario, an Iraq-like ethnic divide may appear – Abdullah’s power base is among Tajiks, while Ghani’s is among Pashtuns. If that happens, there is risk of violence. The good thing is that the Afghan people are tired of war and may not feel the urge to fight a civil war over the political future of Abdullah or Ghani. But the bad thing is that the running mates of Abdullah and Ghani – Balkh governor Commander Atta Mohammad Noor (who is a Tajik) and the erstwhile Uzbek commander Rashid Dostum respectively – also have an old feud to settle between them and that impacts the ethnic balance in Amu Darya region.
Suffice to say, the Americans will have to depend on Karzai whom they condemned in the past for refusing to sign the US-Afghan security pact, to pull their chestnut out of the fire today. In fact, the only silver lining is that Karzai and his two vice-presidents are actively mediating between Abdullah and Ghani. The Afghan style of consensus-making can be quite deceptive. Compromise is found often at the last minute when outsiders have given up hope already. In this case too, such an outcome cannot be ruled out.
However, what emerges is that Karzai remains the kingmaker and he is nowhere near walking into the sunset. That is something of an irony, because the Americans had practically written off Karzai as a ‘lame duck’. President Obama, during his last visit to Afghanistan in end-May, didn’t regard Karzai to be consequential enough to seek a meeting, and he actually turned down an Afghan proposal for talks at the presidential palace in Kabul. Karzai in turn refused to visit the Bagram military base for a tete-a-tete with Obama, either, as suggested by the American side.
The wheel has come full circle and Obama will be anxiously tuned in to fathom the outcome of Karzai’s mediatory efforts in Kabul, which remain as the sole remaining hope that an orderly transition in Afghanistan could still be salvaged.