Afghan Election Uncertainties Threaten Obama's Legacy

By Timothy Spangler

July 10, 2014 6 min read

The recent elections in Afghanistan have provided neither the certainty nor the foundation for future stability that the White House would have preferred. Initial tallies put Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, an ex-World Bank official, approximately 1 million votes ahead of his opponent, Abdullah Abdullah. Allegations of fraud on an "industrial scale" were promptly made by the Abdullah camp, as well as suggestions that the former foreign minister should establish his own government in parallel with Ghani's. A smooth transfer of power could be seen as a significant victory for the Obama administration, but Afghanistan is instead on the verge of a potentially bloody division along ethnic and geographic lines.

Although the official result will not be announced until July 24, Abdullah has already publicly declared himself the victor, despite receiving only 45 percent of the vote. The de facto opposition leader in Afghanistan's nascent democracy, Abdullah handily won the first round of voting, which occurred in April, and was expected to win this runoff with ease. The 8 million votes counted appear to be in excess of the number of people who actually voted. In particular, Ghani seems to have doubled the number of votes he received when compared with the first round of voting. Between now and July 24, the ballots and polling station records will be examined to determine the extent of the fraud. Whereas Abdullah is adamant that all fraudulent votes should be disqualified and removed from the final count, Ghani is keen to prevent excessive delays and have a victor declared as soon as possible.

Given that Ghani's power base is in the south and east among the Pashtuns and Abdullah's is in the north and west among the Tajiks, failure to reconcile the two would-be leaders could result in full-fledged civil war. The United States is pushing for a thorough review of the fraud allegations, but it is unclear how much influence Washington has over the process. Secretary of State John Kerry could try to make use of American financial generosity to cajole both sides toward some form of consensus, but the task will not be easy.

The incumbent president, Hamid Karzai, has been an unreliable ally for Washington in recent years, which has proved awkward for the Obama administration, which placed its "AfPak" strategy center stage from its earliest days. Nearly six years on, with a U.S. exit rapidly approaching, there still remains no binding agreement in place with Kabul to allow American troops to stay on in January 2015.

Since the Taliban were removed from power 13 years ago, Afghans have sought stability and peace. Under the Karzai regime, the intense rivalries among various ethnic and tribal groups have been suppressed, but not extinguished. A failure to produce a definitive election result acceptable to both factions could leave the country ungovernable as a single political unit.

A fracturing of the country along racial lines could further impede social development and economic development, which have been slow despite the large amount of foreign aid that props up the wobbling Afghan economy. Even after years of effort and investment, simple indicia of progress — such as the education of young girls — remain unsatisfactory. Malnutrition is an ongoing threat because of the severe poverty that plagues many parts of the country. A 2012 report by UNICEF estimated that the rate of malnutrition could be as high as 10 percent. A civil war would compound these issues exponentially. Despite the numerous allegations that have been made against Karzai and his government in Kabul, the relative stability of his years in power would quickly become only a memory if the uncertainty over the next leader were to continue for too long.

Although Abdullah can tell his supporters that "without doubt," he is the winner of the election, such claims will only go part of the way to his ultimately being anointed as the next president. As Kerry tries to keep the situation manageable, anger is building among frustrated Afghans. For example, at a pro-Abdullah rally, his supporters tore down a poster of Karzai to demonstrate their anger at their current situation.

Should the electoral crisis continue, neither the army nor other governmental or civil organs would likely be able to prevent the splintering of the country. Stability and national unity must be constructed, therefore, in the coming weeks by building consensus among people who otherwise disagree passionately with one another.

As Barack Obama monitors these developments from the Oval Office, he will no doubt be wondering how the results of this election in Afghanistan will mold his legacy. By prioritizing so highly his "AfPak" strategy, it should come as no surprise that this will be a region that future historians will focus much attention on when assessing the effectiveness of his various foreign policy initiatives.

Timothy Spangler is a writer and commentator who divides his time between Los Angeles and London. His radio show, "The Bigger Picture with Timothy Spangler," airs every Sunday night from 10 p.m. to midnight Pacific time on KRLA AM 870. To find out more about Timothy Spangler and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at

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