US gets dream team in Kabul, almost
By M K Bhadrakumar
At first glance, the visit by the US Secretary of State John Kerry to Kabul in the weekend may appear to be a success. But Kerry himself didn't think so, and was alternatively joyful and moody in his assessment.
Kerry, in the presence of the Afghan candidates in the presidential runoff - Dr Abdullah Abdullah, former foreign minister, and Dr
Ashraf Ghani, former finance minister - listed four tangible gains from his talks:
He got both candidates to commit to participate in and abide by the results of a comprehensive audit of "every single ballot that was cast ... 100%, all 8 million".
The audit will be carried out in Kabul and will commence within 24 hours with the ISAF providing logistic and security underpinning.
The audit will be internationally supervised.
Both candidates agreed that the winner of the election will serve as president and will immediately form a "government of national unity".
Without doubt, this adds up to be a substantial diplomatic achievement and Kerry had every reason to be ebullient in presenting it to the world audience. However, soon afterward, in a second media event after meeting President Hamid Karzai, Kerry added the caveat:
This will be still a difficult road because there are important obligations of audit. There will be difficult choices that will be made. It will still require leadership and statesmanship from both of the candidates. But tonight, Afghanistan saw a moment of what unity can mean.
Kerry could sense that the "moment" he saw might prove ephemeral and the joy it imparted turn out to be transitory. In fact, some dissonant voices are already beginning to be heard in the opposing camps no sooner than Kerry took off from Kabul.
Again, the guarded dull unenthusiastic tone in which Karzai spoke to the media conveyed the impression that there are serious misgivings about what is unfolding - although he agreed to the pleas that the inauguration of the new president be deferred from the scheduled date of August 2 in view of the new exigencies.
Karzai gently sequestered himself from Kerry's visit and implied that it was at Washington's initiative. He disclosed that Washington has been keeping in touch with the two candidates all the while, contrary to the Obama administration's standoffish attitude publicly. Karzai said dryly,
As you witnessed on - they had a press conference, both brothers - our candidates, Dr Abdullah Abdullah and Dr Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai along with His Excellency John Kerry and [UN representative] Mr Jan Kubis at the - they had some announcements which I welcome ... and I hope that the 100% audit of the votes will take place and start as soon as possible so that the nation of Afghanistan finally elect their next president.
Karzai narrated how he had himself already taken necessary steps leading to the audit under the UN auspices in consultation with Abdullah and Ghani. (Significantly, in his remarks at the press conference with Kerry, Abdullah pointedly refrained from mentioning Karzai as having contributed to the agreements reached on Saturday.)
It stands to reason that nothing has been forgotten or forgiven by either side and a fresh contestation could be in the offing. Most certainly, Karzai could not have taken lightly in his stride the international monitoring of the presidential runoff, something he consistently opposed. In essence, Karzai has been reduced to the role of a bystander entrusted with the sole duty of scheduling the inaugural ceremony of the new president.
But Karzai is extremely sensitive about his presidential prerogatives as the elected leader of a sovereign country and has his own methods and style to assert them in due course. The hundred percent audit that Kerry has pledged - rather than an audit of disputed votes - is a big concession to Abdullah and will be seen by Karzai as signifying a supersession of his executive decisions so far in breaking the election deadlock.
At the very minimum, President Barack Obama's aides should have counseled him to put a phone call through to Karzai, given the way such things inevitably play out in the public perceptions in the Afghan bazaar. This isn't exactly how Karzai visualized the curtain formally coming down on his presidency.
In turn, this perceived slight could hold unpleasant surprises for the Obama administration. The fact remains that a very tricky period of several weeks lies ahead whilst the laborious prospect of weighing the credibility of each of 8 million votes gets under way and highly tendentious claims and counter-claims are bound to appear.
However, far more serious would be the rumor in the Afghan bazaar that Kerry might have asked Ghani to replace his vice-presidential running mate Ahmed Zia Massoud with the current vice-president Younus Qanooni. Massoud belongs, incidentally, to the Karzai camp.
If true, this is an ill-advised unwise move, as it amounts to interfering with the delicate balance of forces in the Panjshir Valley - the power base of Abdullah, Qanooni and Massoud - where the inheritance of the legacy of the late Ahmed Shah Massoud (who was assassinated by the al-Qaeda in 2001) still remains an unresolved issue, apart from reworking the alchemy of the Karzai-backed Pashtun coalition that backs Ghani, a Kuchi himself, who otherwise lacks a power base of his own.
However, personalities and vanity fairs apart, there is also a serious "systemic" issue here: What exactly is a "government of national unity" in the Afghan context? Kerry didn't spell out; nor the two candidates.
No doubt, a national unity government suits Afghanistan's needs today but the issue is, how to go about it. Once a fine comb is run through the recount ("audit") and a victor emerges beyond doubt as the legitimate elected leader, what is the need of a government of national unity? This is one thing.
Second, why should the victor who enjoys an unquestioned popular mandate share power? The then US defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld drafted for Afghans a presidential system of government something like America's and in Washington no president ever 'shared' power with his vice-president.
Ghani or Abdullah will both insist that power flows though the barrel of the presidential gun. So, what does a "national unity" government amount to? Some Afghans say, it means "shared government" - whatever it means - while Abdullah flatly says it doesn't mean coalition government.
Abdullah's ally, Hazara leader Mohammed Mohaqiq had disclosed that what is on the anvil is an arrangement whereby the victor after the vote auditing will become the president, who, thereupon, will appoint the loser as the chief executive of his government, while within an year the Afghan constitution will be amended to create the post of a proper prime minister.
It all seems a slippery slope. As the standoff over the runoff shows, the entire impasse has been about power and the perks and privileges that go with it. There is no daylight possible between the respective campaigns of Ghani and Abdullah.
Arguably, the best course would have been that Karzai, who is a master coalition-builder, continued in power and formed a government of national unity comprising all segments of population cutting across the political spectrum.
All in all, therefore, it may be premature for Washington to celebrate that it may be getting, finally, a dream team in Kabul - a technocrat alongside a hardcore pro - while at the same time vanquishing Karzai. From the political landscape But then, this is Afghanistan and Kerry had reason to be wondering what he achieved.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India's ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001).
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