After months of open meddling in the Afghan election process by American diplomats in Kabul, the US government apparently failed to prevent the twin swearing-in ceremonies by Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah. According to a close aide of Abdullah, recent meetings between US officials and the two Afghan leaders also “didn’t yield” any results.
Being flexible & soft doesn’t mean forgoing of truth. We stand firm on our position. There isn’t any reversal. They face invincible fort & face no option but to accept objective realities. Mediators’ last meeting didn’t yield result. Our duty is over. Practical measures follow.
— Fazal Ahmad Manawi (@FazalManawi) March 18, 2020
The status quo in Kabul is the continuation of the previous national unity government in its worst form.
According to a source in former President Hamid Karzai’s office, US special representative Zalmay Khalizad had assured Afghan leaders, including Karzai that the US would not “allow” any presidential inauguration if Ghani and Abdullah do not reach an agreement to form an inclusive government in Afghanistan. Without that, he vowed that American officials will not attend any ceremony in Kabul.
But days later, we witnessed the US breaking that vow. US officials attended President Ghani’s inauguration, affirming US recognition of his electoral victory.
Afghans didn’t see it coming
Concerned and dismayed by the ongoing presidential electoral crisis and the declaration of two parallel government structures in Kabul, Afghans question the American role in the current crisis. Despite Washington’s commitments to support “a unified and sovereign Afghanistan”, the US is pushing Afghanistan into divisions, disunity and a political disaster.
The Donald Trump administration is responsible for the rift between Ghani and Abdullah over the disputed election results. Washington must genuinely support a unified, sovereign and stable Afghanistan. It’s also imperative for Afghan political leaders to unite, resolve their political differences and open negotiations with the Taliban to end the war.
People in Afghanistan were taken aback by the twin inauguration ceremonies of Ghani and Abdullah in Kabul. Jafar Mahdavi, chairman of National Party of Afghanistan, said our “democracy” went into “coma”.
دموكراسي كه امروز به " كُما " رفت. اگر نتيجه و برآيند حوادث امروز بتواند ما را حتي يك قدم به صلح عادلانه و پايدار نزديكتر بسازد، خوب است. pic.twitter.com/wdgbWHDbz8
— Jafar Mahdavi (@mahdavi_jafar) March 9, 2020
Arif Rahmani, an Afghan MP, tweeted that “after 20 years, the international community, in particular, the US experienced a shameful defeat and failure” in Afghanistan.
But the question is: Is the current electoral and political crisis a “failure” of US policy and electoral intervention in Afghanistan or an intended outcome?
Costly US meddling
Post 9/11 Afghanistan shows that costly US electoral interventions include providing funds, making public announcements in favour or against certain candidates, and using misinformation or propaganda to shape the general opinion in support of the American objective. At least, Afghans are familiar with a “blatant” US interference in their country’s 2009 presidential election, which Robert Gates, the former US secretary of defence, called as “our clumsy and failed putsch” against Karzai.
In 2019, according to the US embassy in Kabul, in order to support “a clean election”, the US provided $29 million.
Strong support for #Afghanistan and #UNAMA from the U.S. Mission to the UN yesterday. As my colleague Amb. Cohen underscored, the U.S. has provided $29 million – half of the international community’s contribution – to support the upcoming presidential elections. https://t.co/oYQVep4kQB
— Chargé d’Affaires Ross Wilson (@USAmbKabul) September 11, 2019
The US also paid “International Commissioners” to “advise” Afghanistan’s electoral management bodies.
US funding opened the path for its country’s diplomats in Kabul to carry out election influence operations under different names. American diplomats, in particular the former US ambassador to Afghanistan, John R. Bass, who already had a very controversial mission in Turkey, were regularly visiting Afghanistan’s electoral bodies, meeting with Afghan commissioners and presidential candidates and being photographed with them. This was not limited to visits meetings and making suggestions to Afghan authorities and presidential candidates. “The IEC (Independent Election Committee) must now focus on key steps needed to prepare for presidential elections quickly and efficiently”, said the US ambassador.
About a month after the election, against the general expectation, Afghanistan’s IEC decided not to announce preliminary results. The IEC reasoned that it would first implement “anti-fraud measures” to separate clean votes from unclean ones. The process took several months, which is one of the key factors behind Afghanistan’s election crisis.
However, the US embassy “fully” supported the decision. In a statement, ambassador Bass said he supports Afghanistan’s IEC in “fully implementing anti-fraud measures before announcing preliminary results”. “We agree it is better to release an accurate result instead of a rushed one. Urge all candidates to support the independence of the process”, added the ambassador.
Support @AfghanistanIEC in fully implementing anti-fraud measures before announcing preliminary results in the #AfghanElections. We agree it is better to release an accurate result instead of a rushed one. Urge all candidates to support the independence of the process.
— Chargé d’Affaires Ross Wilson (@USAmbKabul) October 20, 2019
Replying to the US ambassador’s statement, Khatol Momand, an Afghan poet and writer, tweeted: “Please don’t! There are motives behind every support of yours. Support of mujahideen, support of Taliban and support of these 19 years, brought nothing but disasters.”
Please don’t! There are motives behind every support of yours. Support of mujahideen, support of Taliban and support of these 19 years, brought nothing but disasters.
— Khatol Momand (@khatol_momand) October 20, 2019
I will not be wrong to mention that the US embassy supported almost every major decision of the Afghan electoral bodies. Ambassador Bass played the role of a well-informed observer and guarantor, who was often tweeting and assuring the Afghan people with rosy statements.
2/3 It’s important for all #Afghans to remember: these results are preliminary. Many steps remain before final election results are certified, to ensure the Afghan people have confidence in the results.
— Chargé d’Affaires Ross Wilson (@USAmbKabul) December 22, 2019
He continued assuring Afghans about reliable election results, “Patience and transparency are “the priorities… in order to receive reliable results” in the election.
Impressed with the hard work at the National Tally Center to honor the sacrifices and votes of the #Afghan people. Patience and transparency are the priorities right now in order to receive reliable results in the #AfghanElections. pic.twitter.com/89xGYDBexH
— Chargé d’Affaires Ross Wilson (@USAmbKabul) October 14, 2019
When there were allegations against some local security forces, accusing them of “partisan election activity” in favour of a particular presidential candidate (Ashraf Ghani), by rival candidates, the US embassy was quick to reject those allegations. As late as 31 January 2010, the US embassy was reassuring Afghans by stating that they “must have confidence in the outcome” of the election.
Integrity of the process is THE priority in all elections. Voters must have confidence in the outcome so whoever leads the next government can build consensus, and all #Afghans can work together for #peace and the national interest. #Afghanistan #AfghanElections
— Chargé d’Affaires Ross Wilson (@USAmbKabul) January 31, 2020
Nevertheless, under President Ghani’s pressure, when the Afghan election commission announced the results in his favour, for more than a week, the US neither congratulated nor contradicted Ghani’s claim of electoral victory. Washington, instead, urged Afghan political leadership to “focus not on electoral politics”, but on “ending the war with the Taliban, and finding a formula for a political settlement”.
What happened to the Afghan presidential election and the US investment in it? What went wrong and why?
US officials’ appearance in Ashraf Ghani’s inauguration was in full contradiction with their prior statements and discussions with Afghan political leaders in Kabul. Washington’s role in the Afghan presidential election and its sincerity in dealing with the Afghan political leaders to resolve the electoral crisis is questionable. The Trump administration must answer.
Calling the current situation “concerning”, Karzai expressed his “deep concern about the lack of sincerity and transparency” in the US policies vis-à-vis the Afghan election and the peace process. In Karzai’s view, the US “could have prevented division and political instability” by taking “constructive and timely” steps ahead of twin presidential inauguration ceremonies in Kabul, had it “truly” sought a resolution to the current crisis.
Presently, the deepening rift between Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah over the disputed election results threatens to further destabilise the already shaky political situation in Afghanistan. Washington remains to be an unreliable partner. However, Afghans must unite to form an inclusive Afghan national unity government, acceptable for all. We should create a broader political framework on national level and only then start direct negotiations on peace and a political settlement with the Taliban.
The author is an Afghan journalist and writer. He served as a spokesperson and director of communications to the former President of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, from 2011 to 2014. Views are personal.