WASHINGTON – The Obama “Afghanistan exit strategy” was based on two major assumptions. Number 1: The US and its NATO allies have done a good job at training Afghan forces –both the military and the police. A modernized and well equipped Afghan army will be perfectly capable of handling the persistent Taliban threat on their own. Number 2: Thanks to generous US and allied assistance, there is now in place a reasonably well-functioning government in Kabul whose legitimacy and authority is recognized throughout Afghanistan.
Foundations not so strong
In reality these strong foundations that justify an eventual US and NATO forces withdrawal may not be so strong after all. On the security side, the Taliban seem capable of launching major attacks here in there, including the most spectacular destruction of dozens of trucks carrying precious fuel into Afghanistan, almost with impunity. Given all this, it remains to be seen how well the Afghans forces will do after 2016, when they will know that they are really on their own, with no readily available back-up.
The presidential elections
But the real problem –in fact unprecedented crisis– right now is the legitimacy of any new Kabul government. At the beginning of the recent presidential elections, leading to the runoff between Abdullah Abdullah, (former Foreign Minister), and Ashraf Ghani, (former Finance Minister), it seemed that things were working out reasonably well. The main problem seemed to be security at the polling stations. But, all in all, the Taliban, despite threats and a few attacks, was unable to disrupt the elections.
That said, leave it to the Afghans to spice things up. After the first round of voting, Northern Alliance favorite Abdullah was leading by a good margin. He got 45% of the vote, while Ghani received only 31%. And it seemed that Abdullah’s chances to win in the second round had improved significantly when the number 3 candidate who had received 11% withdrew from the race and endorsed him.
But now, it looks as if a miracle happened. Ghani jumped from 31% in the first round to 56.4% in the second round. That’s almost double what he got the first time. In some precincts his support increased 10 times!
Abdullah got only 43.6%, a little less than what he had received in the first round. Of course, this incredible jump favoring Ghani is due to widespread fraud. What else can it be?
In any other normal democracy, this could not happen. This spectacular increase in the number of Ghani supporters –all in matter of a few weeks– is not believable. The problem is that this is not a developed democracy. This is Afghanistan.
And therefore now we have an unprecedented constitutional/political mess that may turn really ugly. Of course Abdullah claims that there was widespread fraud, and that he is the legitimate winner. But Ghani is not conceding anything.
So far, things are in limbo. The election results have not been certified. There are plans to have a vote recount. But it is not clear how extensive and how believable such a recount will be.
Still, if there is no acceptable resolution, and if Abdullah goes ahead with a threat he made and sets up a parallel government in case Ghani is declared to be the winner, then we may have the preconditions for civil war. A civil war featuring Abdullah and his Northern Alliance supporters on one side, (mostly Tajik and other non Pashtun), fighting against Ghani and his mostly Pashtun supporters on the other.
Well, here we go. If you thought that the persistent Taliban threat would be the main security issue confronting the Kabul government in the years ahead, brace yourself.
This is a lot worse. It turns out that the lack of a legitimate Kabul government may be the real security threat. We are talking about the possible collapse of an extremely fragile, truly poor, aid-dependent Afghanistan; just as America, its strongest military and financial supporter, is getting ready to leave, for good.
We did not see this one coming
In all this, it seems that the Obama administration, once more, was caught by surprise. “We did not see this one coming. And now, what do we do? “ It seems clear that, unless this incredibly bad electoral mess is resolved in a manner that leaves all major factions satisfied –and I do not see how this can be done– the legitimacy of the next Afghan President, no matter who is declared winner, will be undermined.
This being the case, can Obama go ahead with his decision to leave Afghanistan in 2016? A poor country, in chaos, with an ongoing insurgency and an unresolved constitutional crisis?
It is not Obama’s fault that the world is in turmoil. But his instincts to withdraw, claiming as he did in a recent interview that, all in all we are lucky to live in the present times, because now the world is a much better place, are totally wrong. Obama’s instincts are at odds with reality.
Let’s see: Syria is in chaos, Iraq close to collapse. Putin gobbled Crimea, and messed up Eastern Ukraine. The Iranians are determined to acquire and keep a nuclear capability. China is trying to redraw maritime sovereignty in Asia, making preposterous claims on zones previously controlled by Japan and Vietnam. Israel is about to go to war with Hamas in Gaza. And now this mess in Afghanistan.
These problems are not Obama’s fault. Of course they are not. But it is fair to say that, as all this is going on, a US withdrawal from a shaky Afghanistan sends a really bad signal to a world that has no replacements for American leadership.