Two cheers for John Kerry and the Afghanistan Presidential standoff deal

Independent election commission of Afghanistan

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan, July 22, 2014—Afghanistan’s election officials say that they will complete a nationwide ballot audit within a few weeks.

Don’t hold your breath.

Today marks the day that the Independent Election Commission of Afghanistan was supposed to have certified the winner of the runoff election and declared a winner. Things didn’t go as planned, though. As simmering partisan cheerleading after the second round of voting quickly boiled over into the beginnings of a coup, the international community urged restraint and patience.

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Secretary Kerry literally swooped in at the nick of time to salvage a situation that was becoming unmanageable. The deal he forged with the two presidential contenders represented a major triumph for US foreign policy, and showed what could be accomplished when leaders get together to negotiate.

But that deal is itself on the verge of catastrophe.

Over the weekend, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) helped transport the ballots—all 8.1 million ballots—to the capital so the IEC could conduct a thorough audit. Those ballots are still streaming in.

Almost immediately, the recount halted over disagreements between the two teams over technicalities.

Kerry did an admirable job, though. Before he arrived, both Afghan presidential hopefuls—Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah—had claimed victory. The Afghan election system mandates periodic announcement of preliminary vote totals, candidates can declare a win or fraud well before the actual result is known.

That’s exactly what happened.

Abdullah, who had beat Ghani handily in the first election in April but failed to win pass the 50 percent threshold, cried foul and threatened to form a parallel government. Ghani insisted he made up a substantial gap in votes from the earlier round. A disputed election and a political schism would have forced NATO to withdraw military support, so Abdullah backed down.

But the threat had been made and the crisis was only postponed. Kerry’s deal postponed it long enough for the native Afghan institutions to solve the problem.

But nation building requires much more than that.

As impressive as Kerry’s diplomacy was, the United States under Barack Obama is infamous for talking big only to fail on follow through.

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Military planners understand follow up. Central to stability operations—the phase of counterinsurgency that NATO is in right now—is holding ground. If counterinsurgency often places political considerations above military ones, then our political leaders ought to be more engaged than they have been and hold the gains in governance and civil institutions that had been hard earned.
Kerry made his dramatic appearance in Kabul last week to perform the diplomatic rescue mission. But too often this administration waits for the stage to be set for such drama. Stability and business as usual is boring. It doesn’t always get headlines. Afghanistan could use some boredom right now.

The diplomatic breakthrough can be credited to the personal relationships that Kerry cultivated over the years. It requires follow through.

Of course there is no reason to suggest that the current election fiasco could have been avoided with a different approach by the US, yet it is emblematic of Obama’s hands off approach to everything he declares is important.

Now the world has an opportunity to help Afghanistan solve this problem before it metastasizes. It’s going to take engagement. Leaders will have to be present, and they’ll have to get partners to follow through on commitments made. If the diverse cases of Libya, Iraq, Egypt, Iran, and Russia teach us anything, it is that defeats and setbacks can easily follow apparent progress. A win remains a win only if the winner follows through. In world affairs the game is never over.

Kerry gets two cheers. Let’s hope he doesn’t follow the pattern of this administration before his achievement is squandered.

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