How to Avert Afghanistan's Implosion

Originally published in The Wall Street Journal
July 11, 2014

Afghan presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai smiles as he listens during a news conference in Kabul July 8, 2014. The United States warned on Tuesday it would withdraw financial and security support from Afghanistan if anyone tried to take power illegally, as supporters of presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah rallied in Kabul for parallel government. (Reuters)

The Afghan electoral commission announced on Monday that preliminary results showed Ashraf Ghani a million votes ahead of Abdullah Abdullah. Both camps immediately claimed victory.

Mr. Abdullah's supporters have taken to the streets, and he has threatened to form a parallel government if the result is not overturned. The White House has said that the formation of an extra-constitutional body will mean the termination of U.S. aid to Afghanistan, and rightly so. This election must be decided according to Afghan law by the established electoral bodies and without more mobilization of street pressures. Any other outcome will hurt all of the Afghan people and seriously damage U.S. and international interests in South Asia.

This crisis is only superficially complex. There was clearly a lot of fraud, as there always is in Afghan elections. President Hamid Karzai's political machine largely backed Mr. Ghani, which means that there was no doubt plenty of cheating on his behalf. Mr. Abdullah also surely benefited from ballot-box manipulation, as he did in his 2009 effort to unseat Mr. Karzai. The Afghan electoral system, supported by the international community, must investigate the vote and ultimately certify a result that is as clean as possible in accordance with the Afghan constitutional system.

It won't be surprising if it turns out that Mr. Ghani won, even when the fraud on both sides is subtracted. The electoral coalitions were built in typical Afghan style. Mr. Ghani, a Pashtun, appealed to that ethnic group, which is a plurality of Afghan voters. His selection of Abdul Rashid Dostum, an Uzbek warlord, as his running mate no doubt secured him some Uzbek support that ate into Mr. Abdullah's base.

Mr. Abdullah, a member of the Tajik minority, tried to run as a candidate of all Afghans but was seen as a Northern Alliance power-broker, narrowing his appeal to Pashtuns. Afghanistan's demographics make it hard for a Northern Alliance candidate to win an election fought along ethnic lines, as this one was. Mr. Ghani also campaigned for the runoff election much more vigorously than did Mr. Abdullah.

None of that matters now. There are a limited number of scenarios for resolving the crisis: (1) The result stands and Mr. Ghani wins, with Mr. Abdullah ultimately acquiescing; (2) the result is overturned and the victory given to Mr. Abdullah, with Mr. Ghani submitting; or (3) the whole process breaks down and is discredited, with Mr. Karzai continuing to rule through emergency powers and everyone else trying to figure out how to start over or, worse, abandoning the democratic and constitutional process entirely.

The Afghan electoral commission was right to announce the preliminary results on July 7 while continuing its fraud investigations. Departures from the constitutionally mandated process and timeline risk tipping Afghanistan into the abyss: If an impatient Mr. Abdullah and his supporters launch a parallel government, it would fracture the country and provoke civil war almost immediately.

Prolonging the electoral-review process past its legally mandated period—the final results are due on July 22—allowing Mr. Karzai's continued rule, would alienate most Afghans and all of Afghanistan's international supporters. Fears that Mr. Karzai might extend his rule indefinitely would rise.

The consequences would be dire. Aid would likely be suspended or canceled. Mr. Karzai would continue to refuse to sign the status of forces agreement allowing U.S. troops to stay in Afghanistan after the end of this year. President Obama would likely order plans drawn up to withdraw all U.S. troops by the end of 2014 and might even set that process in motion.

Other troop-contributing nations would do the same. Deprived of military and humanitarian aid, Afghanistan would be on track to implode spectacularly.

The Taliban are no doubt watching the crisis closely, heartened by signs of dysfunction and ready to step up pressure on an Afghan National Security Force already frayed by the ethnic tensions surrounding the election. If international forces begin to move out faster than the current drawdown calls for, significant battlefield failures are likely, heightening the impression that the country is on the verge of collapse. In response to Taliban successes, the Northern Alliance would likely mobilize, further weakening the Afghan National Security Force, because former alliance commanders form much of the military's leadership.

Pakistan would reinforce the Taliban and the Haqqani network. India would be tempted to reinforce the Northern Alliance. Russia, joined by Iran, might support the alliance as well. The prospects for an all-out civil war are high if the electoral crisis is allowed to fester.

Mr. Abdullah and his partisans, in taking their defiant stands, seem to have forgotten the risks of the course they are pursuing. For all his flaws, Mr. Ghani is not Mr. Karzai. He is not a Pashtun supremacist and would not pose a threat to Afghanistan's northern minorities. He has already announced his intention to form an inclusive government, and his past behavior provides ample reason to believe him.

The U.S. and the international community should bring as much pressure to bear as possible on Mr. Abdullah—and on Mr. Ghani if it becomes necessary—to let the constitutional process play out. Otherwise there may be no future for Afghanistan.