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Abdullah withdraws

Interview: Gabriel DomínguezAugust 27, 2014

A spokesman for Abdullah Abdullah says the Afghan presidential candidate will reject the results of the election audit. The move could deepen the crisis and prove catastrophic, analyst Michael Kugelman tells DW.

Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah (R) talks with supporters at a gathering on the last day of campaigning, at his residence in Kabul on June 11, 2014 (Photo: WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP/Getty Images)
Image: Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty Images

Abdullah Abdullah's rejection of the audit led the UN - which is in charge of the recount - to ask the team of rival candidate Ashraf Ghani to also remove his observers from the process. The audit is part of a deal brokered by US Secretary of State John Kerry, who has flown to Afghanistan twice since the June 14 runoff election, after which both candidates claimed victory. The United Nations called the withdrawal "regrettable," but added it would not disrupt the completion of a "robust and credible audit."

It was not immediately clear whether Abdullah would accept the eventual results of the audit as the candidate has yet to make any public comments on the matter. However, Muslim Saadat, one of Abdullah's spokesmen, told AFP on Wednesday, August 27: "We will be out of the process, and any kind of result from the process will not be acceptable for Abdullah."

The former foreign minister's withdrawal from the audit comes after President Hamid Karzai insisted the delayed presidential inauguration ceremony must be held on September 2, imposing a deadline that has raised tensions in both camps.The US has also been pushing for the next president to be chosen in time for a NATO summit set to take place in Wales on September 4-5. The meeting is key to determine how much aid local security forces will receive and how many foreign troops will remain in the conflict-ridden South Asian nation after 2014. Moreover, there are increasing reports about military gains made by the Taliban.

Michael Kugelman, Afghanistan expert at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, says in a DW interview that should Abdullah reject the election results altogether, the country will be looking at a deep crisis that could prove catastrophic. However, he adds, there is still time to elect a new president provided it is in place by the end of September - or even October.

DW: What would it mean for Afghanistan, and the planned unity government, if Abdullah in fact withdraws from the audit altogether, and refuses to accept the election results?

Michael Kugelman: It is one thing for Abdullah to withdraw from the audit. However, if he rejects the election results altogether, then we are looking at a deep, deep crisis that could well prove catastrophic. We've already seen that Abdullah's supporters have been willing to take highly destabilizing measures to protest the election process.

Michael Kugelman
Kugelman: 'This adds yet another complication to an already very fraught and dysfunctional process'Image: C. David Owen Hawxhurst / WWICS

There were reports several months ago that his supporters were making efforts to take over several government facilities. And in fact it was probably these reports that compelled Kerry to travel to Kabul to craft the election agreement with the two candidates.

If Abdullah decides to reject the results now, after an internationally sanctioned recount process, and with an arbitrarily imposed deadline for the new president to take office fast approaching, then we are looking at a major disaster in the making. Unless cooler heads and skillful diplomacy prevail, Afghanistan could be in for a very rough ride very soon.

What does Abdullah's latest pullout from the audit process mean?

This is a heavy blow as it will undercut the inclusive nature of the audit. However, the fact that Ghani's team has followed the UN's request to step out as well should soften the blow somewhat. In some ways, there is something to be said for keeping the two campaigns out of the picture while the UN tries to move things along. At this point in the game, having the two camps hovering around the process could simply get in the way.

This is not the first time Abdullah has pulled his observers out of the election audit. What strategy is he following?

In this case, he is registering, in the strongest way, his unhappiness with the criteria for how votes are deemed fraudulent. He may hope that by pulling out, that there will be a new effort to better define what constitutes a fraudulent vote. This is actually one of the drawbacks of the accord that John Kerry helped broker: it was very vague about what defines a fraudulent vote, which in many ways brings the very integrity of the audit into question.

So in effect, Abdullah's pullout amounts to a pressure tactic. He's hoping that at the final hour, the various parties will come together to bring better clarity about the procedures of this audit.

How potentially dangerous is Abdullah's latest move by given the looming deadlines?

It's certainly not helpful, to say the least. This adds yet another complication to an already very fraught and dysfunctional process, and especially given that President Hamid Karzai insists the audit must be done within the next few days to allow the new president to take power on September 2.

Given these factors, I think the UN's request to the Ghani campaign to pull out as well is a good idea. There will be fewer distractions, which could allow the audit process to move a bit more quickly than it would otherwise. Though this is certainly not to say that the process will be done anytime near September 2.

How do you assess the behavior of rival candidate Ashraf Ghani so far?

It's hard to gauge what his campaign is doing behind the scenes, but his public behavior at the least has been relatively restrained. The fact that he agreed to withdraw from the audit when asked by the UN is a very good thing. And, of course, so is his earlier decision to agree to the audit to start with, despite the fact that he had a sizable lead in the runoff. At the same time, some of the statements from his campaign about the Abdullah camp have been increasingly hostile and even condescending, but ultimately this is simply part of politics.

How important is it for Afghanistan to have a new president before the NATO summit starting on September 4?

It's important, but not essential. Ideally, Afghanistan would have a new leader in place so that there could be a true government representative at the meeting, which is meant to feature critical discussions on future international donor pledges. Still, it's not the end of the world if this doesn't happen; some Afghan representation will be there.

The US wants a new president in place before September 4 so that meaningful discussions can take place over a post-2014 foreign troop presence. Without a new president in place, there can't be a bilateral security deal that allows this presence to occur.

That said, I think there's still time. So long as a new president and government are in place by the end of September - or even October - there should be time to discuss and plan for a post-2014 presence. Let's remember that when US President Barack Obama was deciding whether to keep a troop presence in Iraq after the US ended its role in the war back in 2011, he waited until October of that year to announce a full withdrawal.

Workers of Afghan Independent Election Commission (IEC) recount ballot in Kabul, Afghanistan, 25 August 2014 (Photo: EPA/HEDAYATULLAH AMID +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++)
Kugelman: 'This is actually one of the drawbacks of the accord that John Kerry helped broker: it was very vague about what defines a fraudulent vote'Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Why did President Karzai decide to set the September 2 deadline?

Who knows for sure? Above all it could be another pressure tactic - an effort to generate a stronger incentive for everyone to move more quickly. It could also be an acknowledgement on Karzai's part of the importance of a NATO summit on September 4, which will include discussions about post-2014 donor pledges for Afghanistan.

Given the lifeline that international aid provides to Afghanistan - somewhere around 60 percent of Afghanistan's national budget comes from foreign assistance - this is a summit that's invested with much significance for the country. And if there's no president in place by the time it starts, it's unclear how effective such negotiations would be, given that Afghanistan would have to be represented by someone other than a head of state - whether the outgoing Karzai, some high-level bureaucrat, or even Ghani and Abdullah together.

The latter option may make the most sense, but it's unclear how well that would really work. If both Ghani and Abdullah had come to an agreement as to how their roles will be defined in the unity government meant to be formed after the audit, then this type of representation at the summit could perhaps work. But they haven't come to an agreement.

All this said, the inauguration has been postponed once before, and it certainly could be done again this time. Either way, I think we can expect a high-level US official - maybe even Kerry himself - to make another "emergency trip" to Kabul this weekend.

Michael Kugelman is an Afghanistan expert and senior program associate for South and Southeast Asia at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, where he is responsible for research, programming, and publications on South and Southeast Asia.