THE BLOG
08/28/2014 12:42 pm ET | Updated Oct 28, 2014

Afghanistan's Election Becomes a Farce -- And a US Policy Disaster

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It's hard to pinpoint the exact moment when Afghanistan's presidential election became a complete absurdity.

With a US-brokered audit process of the election already behind schedule, and with outgoing president Hamid Karzai declaring September 2 as the swearing-in day for the country's next leader, the election process suffered yet another blow on Wednesday when Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister and the winner of the election's first round, angrily pulled out of a UN-led audit process that's designed to validate the results of Afghanistan's June presidential election.

As next week's deadline approaches and the United Nations continues the vote audit, Abdullah is expected to meet with his rival, Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai as well as US officials who are desperate to bring the two candidates into a national unity government.

Despite the last-minute talks, it's hard to think of a recent national election that has been so thoroughly botched -- with such dire consequences for the country's future.

In 2014 alone, Egypt and Syria held non-credible presidential votes and parliamentary elections in Iraq and Libya were overshadowed by the breakdown of any semblance of national order.

It's been a difficult summer for US president Barack Obama and US foreign policy interests -- the ongoing tensions between Ukraine and Russia threaten Europe's security, the rise of the Islamic State (IS/ISIS/ISIL) in Sunni Iraq and Syria goaded US military strikes in retaliation, and Israel's summer war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip destroyed two years of efforts by US secretary of state John Kerry to pursue an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.

But Afghanistan's growing political and security crisis represents a fourth major foreign policy headache for Kerry and the rest of the Obama administration.

Though the audit is only slightly more than two-thirds complete, a premature inauguration of either candidate next week could splinter Afghanistan on ethnic lines, giving the next presidential administration virtually no hope of uniting a country already struggling to combat a Taliban-led insurgency.

Months of post-election accusations between the Ghani and Abdullah camps have polarized Afghanistan more than ever. What's so staggering is that Afghanistan's election season started off on such promising terms.

Shortly after the first round on April 5, Afghanistan and the United States breathed a collective sigh of relief. Taliban interference kept to a minimum. Though it took weeks to tabulate the result, the voting generally seemed less fraudulent than the disastrous 2009 election, which saw widespread rigging.

In that race, Karzai claimed an absolute majority after the first round, despite howls of protest from Abdullah. Under significant pressure from the United States, Karzai ultimately agreed to a runoff with Abdullah. Stunned that the country's electoral commission could commit more fraud or fearing defeat, Abdullah withdrew from the contest just days before voting, begrudgingly conceding Karzai's reelection.

So it was with some enthusiasm when 6.6 million Afghan voters took part in this spring's election, and the gave Abdullah a wide margin of victory -- 45 percent to just 31.56 percent for Ghani in the first round.

Despite his close ties to the Tajik community, and despite the fact that Afghanistan's leaders typically hail from the larger Pashtun community, Abdullah won the endorsement of the third-place candidate, Zalmai Rassoul, before the votes were even fully counted. Rassoul, until recently foreign minister in Karzai's administration, claimed the support of many of Karzai's allies, including the outgoing president's brother, and won Kandahar province in the south.

That made the June 14 runoff seem like little more than a formality.

But as Abdullah and his Ghani approached the race, there were already signs that Pashtun voters were coalescing behind Ghani out of fear that handing over control of the already-weak national government to a Tajik leader would further alienate the Taliban-led insurgency, whose leaders and fighters come chiefly from southern Pashtun tribes.

Astonishingly, among 7.9 million voters, Ghani won 56.44% of the vote to just 43.44% for Abdullah.

Nevertheless, enough credible evidence of fraud justified Abdullah's complaints. By early July, Abdullah declared himself the winner and threatened to form an alternative parallel government. That so frightened US officials that Kerry flew to Kabul to broker a deal whereby both Abdullah and Ghani agreed to an audit of every single vote.

From the US perspective, the most important aspect of the election was finding a pathway to a legitimate winner. Both Abdullah and Ghani, the latter a former World Bank official, former Afghan finance minister and one-time United Nations frontrunner to become secretary-general, are generally well-known and well-liked among Western governments. Both candidates were preferred to Karzai, whose frustration with the Obama administration has only grown in the last six years. Though US officials might have unofficially preferred Ghani, who lived in the United States for two decades, both Abdullah and Ghani strongly favor a status-of-forces agreement to permit a residual US peacekeeping and stability presence after the US military otherwise completes its withdrawal.

For a brief time, it seemed like the candidates would abide by the audit process. Within a week, however, the audit was suspended for the first time while the Ghani and Abdullah camps argued over the rules governing the audit. In the meanwhile, as the summer fighting season unfolded, Afghanistan's security situation deteriorated, capstoned by a brazen mid-July attack on Kabul's international airport -- in marked contrast to the relative calm that marked the election campaign.

Though the audit resumed in early August, it coincided with the killing of a US major general by an insurgent within the Afghan army, the highest-ranking casualty of the 13-year US occupation. That, combined with the audit's slow progress, prompted another Kerry-brokered plan on August 10 that pressured Abdullah and Ghani to agree to a 'national unity government,' though the details were never fully detailed, and the agreement collapsed within 48 hours, leaving the camps to fall back on the audit process.

Now, with Abdullah's decision to pull his observers out of the audit, it's hard to believe that Afghans will ever fully agree about the actual outcome of the vote. That will ultimately weaken whichever candidate takes office next week.

Kevin A. Lees is an attorney based in Washington, D.C., and he is the editor of the global electoral politics website Suffragio.org.