US Secretary of State John Kerry made his second visit to Kabul in a month, in a repeated attempt to help Afghanistan finally arrive at an election outcome – preferably before the NATO summit in early September. The press conference at the end of his visit, together with both presidential candidates, was in many ways a repeat of the previous one: long on smiles and goodwill, short on detail and clarity. All three reiterated, in different words, the commitment of both candidates to the audit and its outcome, and to the formation of a national unity government, but stopped short of sharing the content of the communiqué that had apparently been agreed and signed. AAN’s Martine van Bijlert takes a closer look and concludes that, although Kerry helped prevent a serious deadlock, like he did last time, the roots of the crisis remain and will continue to require sustained brokering – possibly long after a new government has finally been established.Dr Abdullah and Dr Ghani signing their first bilateral agreement on 8 August 2014.
State secretary John Kerry arrived in Kabul on Thursday 7 August 2014, on a short-notice, but widely anticipated visit. He had dinner with UN Special Representative to the Secretary General (UN SRSG) Jan Kubiš, after which he met with both candidates – Dr Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani – separately. The next day, 8 August 2014, he visited President Hamed Karzai in the palace and met both candidates again. (1) The meetings culminated in a joint press conference at the residence of the UN SRSG which started several hours late, as has become the habit. Abdullah spoke first, in three languages (Pashto, Dari and English), then Ghani (in Dari, Pashto and English), and finally Kerry, who also used the opportunity to make a statement on the US air strikes against anti-government forces in Iraq that had just started. The tone of the press conference, like last time was, was warm, with friendly words all around.
The press conference seemed mainly designed to portray a sense of cooperation and agreement – after the repeated stalling of the audit and the limited progress on the national unity government negotiations – without getting too bogged down in the complexity of potentially contentious details. Both candidates made references to a specific joint statement that was agreed and signed, but the statement was not read, nor were its contents specified. The main message of the meeting was that the two candidates were publicly reiterating their commitment to the agreement made during Kerry’s previous visit on 12 July 2014, and that in a spirit of cooperation they would support the audit and respect its outcome and work on detailing the formation of a government of national unity (a transcript of the English parts of the press conferences can be found here).
The aftermath of the initial 12 July agreement
The initial agreement, described at the time by UN SRSG Kubiš as “close to a miracle,” had warded off a crisis, but was also left awkwardly open to differing interpretations, creating rifts between both candidates’ teams as they tried to move ahead. The agreement had depended heavily on the ability of the two candidates and their teams to negotiate the necessary technical and political details, which proved to be problematic.
The level of trust between the two teams quickly evaporated and as a result the audit required almost continuous international mediation, both to get through the near daily mini-crises (plagued by time-consuming wrangling over small numbers of contested votes, threats, and even a fistfight between candidate supporters – see video here), and to ensure the continued participation of in particular the Abdullah team. The process was further marred by walkouts and suspensions (either for a few hours to cool down on-site complaints and brawls, or for several days while disputes between the technical teams were being brokered) and the pace of the audit, as a result, has been painfully slow. Three weeks into the process – when the audit had initially, and optimistically, been scheduled to be almost finished – only a little over 5000 of the 23,000-plus ballot boxes have been reviewed.
Moreover, three weeks after the start of the audit on 17 July 2014, the IEC has not yet started to process the findings of the audit, as it has proven very difficult to get everyone to agree on the exact criteria for vote invalidations. After the technical teams of both sides failed to agree, the UN stepped in on 24 July 2014 with a proposal that incorporated both the original IEC checklist and some of the criteria suggested by the candidate teams. The proposal was – reluctantly – accepted by the IEC (read here and here) almost a week later on 30 July, while the two candidates continued to express their reservations and disagreements (despite a carefully, but slightly optimistically worded, earlier UNAMA press release on 26 July 2014 indicating that the candidates would welcome the acceptance of the proposal by the IEC). When the IEC finally restarted the audit on 2 August, a few days after the Eid holiday, the Abdullah observers did not show up, arguing that the UN proposal was insufficient to uncover the full extent of the fraud. The Ghani team, in turn, accused them of continuously raising the bar by introducing new criteria. On the same day, Abdullah’s team released another recording, this one supposedly implicating Vice-President Karim Khalili, to bolster the accusation of a “triangle” conspiracy, involving the presidency, the IEC and the Ghani team, to rig the vote. (2)
The crisis was averted after a phone call by John Kerry and a “clarification” released by UNAMA, that addressed some of Abdullah’s concerns. It stated that “further clarifications” would be made before the invalidation process started, “taking into consideration the relevant proposals, including of the Reform and Partnership Team.” The audit was restarted, but the process remained precarious. In the midst of this, the IEC unilaterally announced on 7 August 2014 that it intended to start invalidating votes after the weekend. It was fairly easy to predict that, with the looming invalidations and a complete agreement still lacking, a new crisis was brewing.
At the same time, when it became clear that Kerry would be on his way, supporters of both camps started making it known that a fourth meeting between the two candidates had taken place on 7 August 2014, to work on a draft statement on the government of national unity – in an apparent attempt to get ready for a possible turn-around. Up to that time, the negotiations on the national unity government had made very little headway and had been complicated by the confusion and disagreement, between the more inflexible quarters of both teams, on what exactly had been agreed. The euphoria over the initial willingness of both candidates to come together, four weeks ago, had dissipated in the face of the difficult reality of trying to negotiate a new government set-up within a short timeline and in a low-trust environment.
Yesterday’s press conference was meant as a clear signal that the “time of campaigning” and of “rhetoric” was over, and that the two sides would now come together to finalise this joint technical/political process and to agree on how to move forward. So what does it look like now?
Agreement on invalidation criteria
Both candidates expressed their respect for the audit process and a willingness to abide by its outcome, in general terms, but Kerry was the most concrete of the three, implying that both candidates had now agreed with the invalidation criteria as proposed by the UN and accepted by the IEC:
That’s why both candidates are here today to say they are not asking for further criteria or changes, they have agreed to what has been laid down by Jan Kubiš and the UN, and they’ve agreed on the process, they will stay with the process, and they will abide by the process. That’s an accomplishment.
It remains to be seen whether both candidates will continue to feel bound by this agreement, which will largely depend on the extent to which suspicions of foul play and insufficiently attentive monitoring are rekindled on either side.
The IEC has in the meantime announced a delay in the start of the invalidation process, pending the finalisation of the database and its software (which, according to the IEC Spokesperson at today’s press update, will automatically invalidate votes based on the agreed criteria and the data entered). The confusion over the criteria, for the moment, appears to persist. Both shifts at today’s audit were delayed, due to another IEC training session for the candidate observers based on a further clarification of the checklist criteria. The Abdullah observers had their own additional meeting to discuss the invalidation criteria, the interpretation of which, at least according to the teams on the ground, is still dependent on ongoing discussions with the UN. (3)
All three men at the press conference indicated that there would be a concerted effort to speed up the process. Of the two candidates, Abdullah was the more explicit, saying:
On the date: – 31st of August – we are committed to work with cooperative experts to achieve that goal and to make sure that we are there by the end of August, [and that] the audit process is completed, without sacrificing the credibility and legitimacy of the audit process, because that’s the goal. But the goal – the time is also very important because of our international commitments, and also more important because of the Afghan people’s expectation.
Ghani initially sidestepped the question and then added a caveat, probably made easier by the fact that he is not expecting to be the one blamed for possibly slowing the process down:
We are categorically committed to accepting the results of the audit and the date for the inauguration of the next president of Afghanistan. I hope that this date can become very firm within a week to ten days, pending on – but we do not want to commit ourselves to a fixed date [our emphasis] today because that date will then drive the process and people will (inaudible). So our flexibility on this very issue is the cornerstone of our consensus, and this should be grasped as a very important process. We have committed that the audit process now is going to pick up speed.
The goal thus seems to wrap up the election by late August – three weeks from now – which, if successful would allow the new president to attend the 4-5 September NATO summit in Wales. President Karzai has also been keeping up the pressure to finalise the elections before the end of the month (repeated in the palace statement on Kerry’s visit).
This timeline that the candidates seem to have committed to is, however, almost implausibly ambitious and the pressure is likely to make further hiccups almost unavoidable. To meet the deadline, the IEC not only has to quickly finish the audit, but it also has to pass the outcome on to the IECC for a final complaints process, before the outcome can be finalised. This would effectively mean auditing 1000-1500 boxes per day, every day, including on weekends, with no further delays or setbacks. Although the pace of the audit has been somewhat picking up over the last few days, it is still quite slow. At lunchtime on 9 August a total of 5291 boxes (of the 23,000-plus) had been audited. And as witnessed by AAN at the site of the audit, yesterday’s agreement so far seemed to have had no effect on the time-consuming ways in which votes were being scrutinised and fought over.
The audit is currently taking place in four hangars that contain a total of 100 audit teams. At each table the ballot boxes are assessed according to the 16-point checklist agreed by the UN and the IEC. After the check, the vote bundles of 50 are, one by one, scrutinised for ‘similar tick marks.’ This has become the main battleground of the audit, with candidate agents poring over the competing votes, trying to spot suspicious similarities. If the agents cannot agree, they call in their supervisors and if the supervisors cannot agree, they call in the expertise of the UN staff (which is most of the time). Time is lost waiting for UN staff to arrive and for them to reach a verdict. In all, most candidate observers have become obsessed with the detection of relatively minor irregularities, while sometimes lacking the expertise to recognise the more blatant forms of fraud. The IEC staff tends to play a largely facilitating role, showing ballots and boxes and letting the candidate observers make up their mind as to whether there are any reasons for suspicion. A participatory process, for sure, but not necessarily the best way to map the extent of the fraud.
If there are no further disturbances, at the current rate the IEC might be able to audit around 4,500 boxes per week – possibly more if it does indeed increase the number of shifts – but that is a very big if. (5) And though it is not impossible that shortcuts may be found that could simplify or speed up the review process, these may be again contested. On the whole, there seems to be a firm commitment on the part of the US, the UN and other donors, to see the audit process through until the very end. At the same time the process is also being pushed along by US/NATO deadlines, which means that it needs to be both hurried and thorough at them same time – a confusing combination. (Of course there are also important domestic reasons to bring the election to a close, as many Afghans are feeling the economic repercussions of the prolonged sense of insecurity.)
The shape of the national unity government
The first Kerry-brokered dual agreement, arrived at on 12 July 2014, always rested on the assumption that the inclusion of some form of national unity government would help make the audit more palatable and render it largely un-contentious. The guaranteed shared role and say of both candidates in the next government was supposed to make winning or losing less important, to allow the audit to do its job of repairing the credibility of the election – a “win-win situation” (in the words of EU ambassador Franz-Michael Mellbin). This was reiterated by Kerry in yesterday’s press conference: “So let me be clear – this audit is not about winning and losing. It’s about achieving the credible result that the people of Afghanistan demand and deserve.” It did not turn out to be that easy. and it may well continue to be that way.
During the press conference very little was said about the details of the national unity government that the candidates had agreed to, other than that it would help put Afghanistan on a path towards a bright future. Kerry, again, was the only one providing some detail, when he mentioned the establishment of the post of a chief executive officer – and he did so in the context of spelling out of what the agreement did not entail:
I want to make clear that this agreement respects the Afghan constitution, which the United States of America strongly supports. It does not establish a parliamentary system, it doesn’t change the role of the president as head of government, but it does create a new position of the chief executive, who will help to manage and work together to bring people onto the same path and to create efficiency and modernity in the governance. The agreement is a critical opportunity for both candidates to do what they’ve just said, which is move beyond the campaign and into the process of governing.
It is widely understood that in the agreement the CEO is meant as a step towards the possible creation of the post of a prime minister (a long-standing wish of the Abdullah camp) through the convening of a Loya Jirga, but it is quite telling that nobody saw it fitting to be more concrete. When a journalist asked for more detail about the CEO post the question was sidestepped, by both candidates. (4) The public vagueness about the specifics of the national unity government strongly suggests that not all has been hashed out yet.
There are by now versions floating around of the supposedly signed statement, as well as the 12 July agreement that preceded it (see for example reported here), but it is unclear why there has been no official, joint release of what is supposed to be an agreed, official document. The documents that have been seen by most media outlets outline the creation of two new posts to be fulfilled by the losing side: (a) a chief executive officer, who will be part of the government, and (b) a leader of the opposition, who will have a say in the government’s senior appointments. It further includes the convening of a Loya Jirga within two years to discuss possible changes in the government system, in particular the creation of a prime-ministerial post; the agreement that the new president will refrain from changes in the security leadership of the country for at least 90 days; a call to begin work on electoral reform to address the shortcomings of this year’s and previous votes; and the understanding that both sides will need to appoint a joint commission to further work out the specifics of the agreement.
The rough outline is thus clear, but given the wide divergence of views on what would be acceptable on both sides, the exact wording of the agreed document is crucial. In the absence of a public affirmation of what exactly has been agreed, the confusion is likely to continue – and may well be be exacerbated by people with strong opinions seeking to put their own versions forward.
Looking ahead, it is hard to know what to make of this re-affirmed agreement. There is of course again a sense of relief among many Afghans that the process is not being left to unravel, but there is also a growing feeling of fatigue. The process is becoming dishearteningly repetitious and it is unlikely that the current atmosphere of goodwill and cooperation will be sufficient to last until the audit has been finalised and the details of the new government agreed.
And there are more fundamental problems that this improvised solution may stir up. First there is a risk that the national unity government may boil down to a ‘post-sharing’ agreement, with a few new posts added. Second, the ambiguity with regard to the exact nature of the new positions, which is partly fueled by disagreements, may well continue after the new government has been installed – leading to a need for continued negotiations (and probably outside brokering) on what the rules of the game are and who gets to enforce them. The fractured relationships between the executive and legislative, witnessed in the past years, (see earlier AAN analysis here) may well be mirrored in the new set-up, leading to regular paralysis. There is, finally, also a potential problem with treating the two candidate teams as representatives of disparate political (and even ethnic or regional) interest groups that need to be represented in the government. In many ways both sides are networks of opportunity, made up of often unstable, short-term political coalitions. Many of the supporters have initially courted both sides before deciding whom to join.
The meetings of the past days have focused on, again, preventing the breakdown of the electoral process and ensuring that a resolution in the not-too-far future remains possible. That is an important immediate consideration. But whatever happens now will also have long-term consequences. So it is to be hoped that in the rush to arrive at an outcome, and in the midst of suspicion between the different teams and a large number of interests (some constructive, others less so), there will still be room for thoughtful negotiations and sound decisions.
(1) It is interesting to compare the short clips of Kerry’s meetings released by the US Embassy and the presidential palace: the US Embassy video of the two candidate meetings is intentionally relaxed and cordial, while the palace video is clearly designed to portray a much cooler mood.
(2) The recording appears to be an informal election campaign gathering of Hezb-e Wahdat representative from various Hazarajat districts. The incriminating sections are these (starting at 4:40):
In the second round of the election, I want to say clearly and with full confidence that victory is for your team and your supported candidate. I [inaudible] to congratulate beforehand Mr Danish [VP to Ghani – AAN] who is now among you. I am aware that efforts from within the government and also the electoral teams [inaudible] and H.E. the president of Afghanistan, there all agree on the victory of this team and this candidate. I had discussions with H.E. the president of Afghanistan and I was also in touch with international friends. Our international friends promised that with the use of every means, and the use of every [inaudible] every opportunity for [inaudible]of this team. Even if these means and opportunities are against the electoral mechanisms. So I asked you all and the officials that came here to not repeat the first round negligence. That was a big and heavy negligence, which has weakened our position internationally, nationally, inside the government and with the supported team. Thus I ask to take specific and reasonable political measures in the second round of the election, and [inaudible] and recover the negligence and tragedy of the first round. And to use any means and any instruments to work in favour of the supported team. Inshallah, victory is yours and your candidate’s and there is no doubt about this. The government, the international community, as well as the president have a positive opinion about the victory of this team. These are confidential talks, very secret talks in a very special gathering and in a party environment. I hope these talks remain secret and together we move towards a victorious election and an election with achievement. (8:14)
(3) The decision on the recount and invalidation criteria (posted on the IEC website here) is a slightly confusing document, which is potentially worrying if it is indeed used as the basis for automated invalidation decisions, as suggested by the IEC Spokesperson.
(4) Ghani: “Thank you for your question. We’re committed to giving this post specific functions and the work ahead of us is precisely definition, of course. But what I want to emphasize is not what is going to be in the decree. What I want to emphasize is our commitment to cooperation, to unity in all spheres of government, life, and responsibilities. A decree is a piece of paper if it is not embodied in a bed of impasses. So we will begin with the problem to which we will commit ourselves and then agree on the best division of labor that will enable (inaudible).”
Abdullah: “Thank you. In the same spirit that was mutually accepted that we work together towards the formation of national unity government in every eventuality, because there will not be two people with the same number of votes as a result of the audit. One will have more votes; one will have a little bit more – less votes. And then in order to help create, establish a sort of win-win situation not only for our two camps, but more importantly for the people of Afghanistan we have agreed on this mutual program. And there are some details attached to it. We are committed to work together to develop it further and our teams will start working on this, on the details of it, of a few days, leaving the outcome of the elections aside or what has happened in the past, but rather looking towards the future for the interest of the national unity of the government in the effectiveness and competence of future government of Afghanistan, with every eventuality which might come up as a result of the audit process.”
Ghani later added: “On the political side, a concrete achievement is that now we’re seeking a comprehensive agreement in our own languages, in our own categories of reference, with full embodiment of the constitution as the cornerstone of everything we do, because [the] questions ahead of us. We’ve put those ambiguities behind us. The constitutional framework is the cornerstone. The authorities of the president as defined in the constitution are going to be exercised. We are seeking a government of national unity on the basis of a common platform that is going to deliver the necessary reforms.”
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020