The long-awaited result of Afghanistan’s bitterly disputed presidential election was expected to end months of uncertainty.
Instead, President Ashraf Ghani’s reelection has triggered a political crisis that has threatened to spill over into violence and derail a historic peace deal between the United States and the Taliban.
Though Ghani was finally declared the winner of the September 28 vote, main challenger Abdullah Abdullah, the country's chief executive officer, has rejected the result, declared himself the winner, and vowed to form his own government.
He then slammed the result as a “coup” and vowed to form “an all-inclusive government.” He also accused election authorities of favoring Ghani.
Ghani's vice president, the powerful former warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum, called on his supporters on February 19 to take to the streets to celebrate what he described as a victory for Abdullah.
The international community has remained unusually silent following the release of the final result on February 18, despite contributing millions of dollars into the election process.
It is unclear if the United States is willing to try to mediate a solution to this new standoff.
In 2014, when both Ghani and Abdullah alleged massive fraud, Washington brokered a power-sharing deal that produced a deeply unpopular and fractured national unity government.
With Ghani and Abdullah representing rival communities, the dispute has exposed the ethnic fault lines in Afghanistan, where Ghani is viewed with suspicion by many members of the country’s ethnic Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara groups.
“Afghanistan could be headed for a fresh political crisis at a critical moment, when the nation is in need of a united front to chart a path towards peace,” said Michael Kugelman, South Asia associate at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.
'All Bets Off'
The political infighting in Kabul has threatened to disrupt a proposed U.S.-Taliban deal on the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan, a major step toward ending the nearly 19-year war.
Following 18 months of grueling negotiations, the United States and the Taliban have agreed to a seven-day reduction of violence ahead of signing the deal, expected at the end of the month.
The Afghan Interior Ministry said on February 18 that the temporary truce would begin in the next five days.
It is unclear to what extent the United States would mediate or intervene, but it is a safe bet that it will be much less publicly and openly involved than in 2014."-- Andrew Watkins, International Crisis Group
As part of the deal, the Taliban is obliged to launch direct negotiations with the Western-backed Kabul government and other Afghans over a permanent cease-fire and a power-sharing agreement.
“The effect of this emerging crisis on the country and the peace crisis will depend on how far Abdullah goes in carrying out his threat of setting up a separate government,” said Kugelman.
“If he decides that it’s best to back down for the sake of peace and stability, then the damage would be limited. But if he digs in, then all bets would be off,” he added.
Given that Abdullah believes he has been wronged electorally three times in a row -- he also claimed to have won the 2009 and 2014 votes -- Kugelman said he was unlikely to back down in the immediate term.
But Andrew Watkins, a senior analyst for Afghanistan at the International Crisis Group, said he believes the political crisis would not necessarily derail the peace process.
“It has been widely understood that the pro-government side of intra-Afghan negotiations will include some political opposition figures as well as government officials,” he said.
“Political figures may calculate that limiting their responses to the election results and ensuring that the intra-Afghan negotiations move forward is actually the best route to securing the interests of their supporters and communities,” Watkins added.
U.S. officials have said that they do not intend to mediate any election disputes in Afghanistan. Some experts are unsure the Trump administration has the will to carry out high-stakes mediation in this situation.
But there has been evidence that Washington has continued to listen to the concerns of key stakeholders, with senior U.S. officials recently meeting with Abdullah and his key ally Dostum.
In 2014, a bitter, fraud-marred presidential election pushed Afghanistan to the brink of civil war before then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry brokered a power-sharing deal between Ghani and Abdullah.
The agreement created the new position of chief executive officer, given to Abdullah to qualm his doubts about the election result.
“It is unclear to what extent the United States would mediate or intervene, but it is a safe bet that it will be much less publicly and openly involved than in 2014,” said Watkins.
Suppress Or Accommodate
The Independent Election Commission said on February 18 that Ghani had secured victory with 50.64 percent of the vote, narrowly giving him an outright win with no need for a runoff.
Abdullah was named runner-up with 39.52 percent. But the vote was marred by allegations of vote-rigging, technical problems with biometric devices used for voting, and militant attacks.
When preliminary results of the election announced in December gave Ghani the lead, Abdullah disputed about 300,000 votes from the record-low turnout of around 1.8 million. Those included 100,000 ballots cast before or after voting hours, an irregularity that election authorities blamed on human error. Abdullah said those votes were fraudulent and cast in favor of Ghani.
The Transparent Election Foundation of Afghanistan (TEFA), a Kabul-based civic-action body that monitors elections, said the IEC's work was not transparent and the commission violated "all standards."
TEFA "finds the announcement of the final election results a poorly thought-out decision," the group said, pointing to a high number of unresolved complaints that were still being scrutinized.
The IEC removed just 453 votes from the ballots counted in its preliminary results, though some 300,000 ballots had been questioned, TEFA said.
Ali Adili, a researcher at the Afghanistan Analysts Network, an independent think tank in Kabul, said he envisioned two scenarios: Ghani could “suppress Abdullah's faction, which seems to be dangerous given the major parties that are in his camp, or he could accommodate Abdullah’s faction” within a new government.
Ethnic Fault Lines
Abdullah has received the public backing of the predominately ethnic Tajik Jamiat-e Islami party, most of the Hazara-dominated Hezb-e Wahdat party, and the Junbish Party led by Dostum, a powerful ethnic Uzbek leader accused of human rights abuses.
Those three major parties on February 19 congratulated Abdullah on his “victory.”
Even before the election result was announced, Dostum threatened to form a parallel government if their grievances were not addressed.
Analysts said those threats not only underscore the political schisms in Afghanistan, but also its ethnic cleavages.
Adili said the political implications of ethnic tensions were felt in the voting patterns.
From the country’s 34 provinces, “18 provinces overwhelmingly voted for Abdullah, whereas 16 other provinces overwhelmingly voted for Ghani,” he said.
“Abdullah counts on support from many non-Pashtuns, and a protracted crisis along ethnic lines would accentuate just how difficult it will be to carry out a full-scale reconciliation process that reflects a consensus of as many constituencies and communities as possible,” said Kugelman.