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Afghanistan: snatching defeat from victory?

September 9, 2014

Summary: Surely the risk of internal conflict is increasing as both presidential candidates continue to claim victory.

The election saga continues but threatens to move from farce to tragedy.  Both candidates are still claiming victory and failing to reach plausible compromise despite the complex and costly vote recount.  The Washington Post is highlighting some worrying information that surely boosts the risk of a civil war:

Washington Post, 8 Sept 2014: The prospect of two candidates declaring themselves the elected successor to Afghan President Hamid Karzai grew significantly Monday, threatening the Obama’s administration’s efforts to prevent the country from erupting in political unrest.  After weeks of recriminations over the disputed results of a June runoff election and negotiations on forming a unity government, Abdullah

Not smiling now...

Not smiling now…

Abdullah declared victory on national television and pledged to block his rival from taking power through “fraudulent results.” The defiant statement heightened tensions days before the announcement of audited election results, which are expected to deliver the presidency to former finance minister Ashraf Ghani.  ‘“We are the winner of the election based on the clean votes of the people,” said Abdullah, claiming that the vote was plagued by widespread fraud. “Fraud, fraudulent results and the announcement of the fraudulent results are not acceptable.”

In response, Daoud Sultanzoy, a top aide to Ghani, said Ghani is prepared to assume power unilaterally should Abdullah fail to return to the bargaining table.

“This is not about a spoiled group that wants to keep a grip on power,” said Sultanzoy, noting the stalemate is hurting the economy. “This is about the people of this country, and we are cognizant about this and won’t be reckless.”

I wasn’t entirely sure whether a “government of national unity” wasn’t simply a fudge that would more or less guarantee internal argument and strife in the months to come.  Now, however, it seems that the country might not even get to that stage.  The highly respected American analyst Seth Jones:

Wall Street Journal, 8 Sept 2014: Afghanistan faces its most serious crisis in a decade. This time, however, it is not caused by an emboldened Taliban but by growing friction between the two contenders for president. Only a determined effort by the United States and other NATO allies can prevent an escalation into violence…The stakes are high. So is the tension in Kabul, where there are rumors that some of Mr. Abdullah’s supporters are considering violence if Mr. Ghani is declared the winner in coming days…

An outbreak of violence could have serious consequences. It could trigger a coup attempt or in-fighting among government security forces allied with the respective camps. There are growing concerns that key military, police and intelligence officials in Kabul and out in the field would support different sides in an insurrection.

Such a split would weaken the government and the fragile Afghan National Security Forces, which could rupture along ethnic lines. That could allow pro-Abdullah forces to consolidate control of the capital and other primarily Tajik and Hazara provinces in central and northern Afghanistan, while pro-Ghani forces could control Pashtun areas in the east and south of the country.

There are already indications that segments of the Afghan National Army, such as the 205th Corps headquartered in Kandahar, could face significant divisions if the losing candidate broke with Kabul. Its subordinate units—which consist of four brigades, a commando battalion and three garrisons—might fracture because of the divided political loyalties of its commanders.

This is key – the Taliban can remain a broadly manageable threat only if the ANSF is unified and controlled by a coherent central government.  With violent fractures in the Kabul regime, the ANSF becomes worse than ineffective – it will split into pro-warlord factions and become a part of the problem.

My thesis from last year looked at directions in which the Afghan conflict could go after 2014.  It highlighted the risks that other political/military factions beyond the Taliban might get drawn in to contest control of the state and suggested that a struggle for army loyalty is plausible and could become a further danger to the stability of the country.

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