Anxious Moments for an Afghanistan on the Brink
New York Times JULY 14, 2014
It was not long before the German concerns proved founded. Enraged by Afghan officials’ sudden announcement of suspicious preliminary results last Monday, the governor declared the breakaway government. And he was followed by similar declarations from other Abdullah supporters.
But as Western officials scrambled to respond, what was not being said aloud was that the Abdullah camp’s threats had already gone beyond talk to a plan of action. Some of Mr. Abdullah’s backers were preparing to take over the centers of government in at least three provinces, and on his word to march on and occupy the presidential palace, according to several of his supporters and former government officials.
What followed was as tumultuous a six-day stretch for Afghanistan as any since the American invasion in 2001. Interviews with Western officials, the two presidential campaigns and other Afghan officials detailed a week that went beyond any previous political crisis in carrying the risk of a factional conflict that would tear open the wounds of the devastating civil war.
Local mujahedeen commanders were urging action against the palace, expressing confidence that the Afghan security forces, including those guarding President Hamid Karzai, would not fire on them. The commanders believed that most of the security forces were sympathetic to Mr. Abdullah, and that Mr. Karzai would be loath to order guards to open fire.
"Our commanders say we do not need the palace key from the Election Commission, we can go and take it ourselves," said Fazal Ahmad Manawi, a former supreme court judge and an election adviser to Mr. Abdullah. "If Dr. Abdullah had said yes, several provinces including the palace would have fallen into the hands of his team."
According to Mr. Manawi and others, it was a call from President Obama to Mr. Abdullah just after dawn last Tuesday that helped stop a headlong rush into a disastrous power struggle. Mr. Obama warned Mr. Abdullah not to even consider seizing power and to keep calm over the three days until Secretary of State John Kerry could get to Kabul.
"Really here the U.S. government did a great favor to the Afghan people," Mr. Manawi said. "If it was not for the telephone call to Dr. Abdullah, this would not have stopped."
The American ambassador in Kabul, James B. Cunningham, would not directly confirm that American officials knew of the plan to march on the palace before Mr. Obama and Mr. Kerry reached out. But he did acknowledge an acute sense of urgency.
"The reason we intervened so rapidly was to urge them to stop even thinking about going down that road, which, I agree, would have been a disaster for the country," Mr. Cunningham said in an interview with a small group of reporters. "It was serious enough that it engaged the president of the United States and the secretary of state, and that’s not an everyday occurrence."
At a political rally the day of the call, Mr. Abdullah invoked the American warnings as he struggled to curb supporters who had begun to shout their demands for a march on the palace. Beginning to tear up, he urged patience, saying that Mr. Kerry would soon be in Afghanistan, and that they should wait to see what kind of agreement could be struck with his rival, Ashraf Ghani. He was shouted down, and left the stage as the crowd’s yells heightened.
From the start, diplomats and election observers knew there were signs of large-scale fraud. After troubling reports from the first round of voting in April, things sharply escalated the day of the presidential runoff, June 14.
When the election commission announced a turnout of seven million that day, it was far higher than expected, and than plausible, given witness reports from polling stations around the country. The announcement was immediately suspicious not just to Mr. Abdullah, but to some international officials as well.
Over the next weeks, Mr. Abdullah pressed accusations of systemic election fraud, in which millions of false ballots had been arranged in a conspiracy that included Mr. Ghani’s campaign, national election officials and President Karzai himself. Mr. Ghani, for the most part, kept a studied silence other than to deny his opponent’s claims and reaffirm that he would abide by the election commission’s process.
Mr. Abdullah began unveiling evidence, including audio recordings of phone calls that his campaign officials said involved a senior election commissioner talking with staff members about stuffing ballot boxes. The commissioner resigned, but the electoral body mostly refused Mr. Abdullah’s other demands.
Then, last Monday, the Independent Election Commission announced preliminary results for the runoff, even as the candidates were still negotiating with the United Nations on a broader investigation of fraudulent ballots. They put Mr. Ghani more than a million votes ahead of Mr. Abdullah, and said the turnout was even greater than initially announced, at 8.1 million voters.
The announcement caught most by surprise. One diplomat in Kabul said it "torpedoed" the United Nations’ efforts to negotiate a deal, and left Mr. Abdullah "extremely vulnerable in his own camp." The diplomat, along with some other officials interviewed about the crisis, spoke on the condition of anonymity.
As Mr. Abdullah’s supporters began agitating for action, the Germans sounded their note of alarm, followed by other Western officials. Then Mr. Obama stepped in, and a tense three-day countdown began until Mr. Kerry’s arrival.
Although Afghan officials were careful to say that they believed Mr. Abdullah did not personally want a call to arms on his behalf, he began publicly walking a very tenuous line. Even as he tried to calm his supporters, he also insisted that he would be found the rightful winner of the election. And he reserved the right to unilaterally declare a government if talks with Mr. Kerry did not satisfactorily address his accusations of fraud.
Mr. Kerry, whose flight arrived just before midnight, spent the first hours of Friday morning with Mr. Cunningham and other officials at the embassy discussing the situation and going over possible solutions, American officials said. "The outcome was not preordained," Mr. Cunningham said. "There really was quite a deadlock when he arrived."
Much of Friday was spent listening to the concerns of the Afghans. That night, Mr. Kerry huddled with American and United Nations officials to come up with a plan for the next day, which he would spend at the American Embassy, shuttling between the two camps in the embassy’s main meeting rooms in hopes of brokering a deal. Mr. Cunningham’s residence in the embassy’s upper floors were to be used for more private meetings.
Adding to the difficulty of the negotiations was that it was Ramadan, and the candidates and their entourages were observing dawn-to-dusk fasts for the Islamic holy month.
The negotiations on Saturday were most drawn out over the details of how to audit the runoff ballots, Mr. Manawi said. Mr. Abdullah was insisting that any box in which over 93 percent of the ballots were for one candidate should be reviewed. Mr. Ghani objected, eventually suggesting that they audit all the votes cast.
After that deal, officials said, the rest of the agreement was reached relatively easily, despite the fact that it included a sweeping plan to change the shape of the government over the next few years and to agree on a unity government in the shorter term after the results of the audit — and the election — are announced.
The winner will become president, and the runner-up, or somebody he nominates, will become a chief executive running the government. The security ministries will remain as they were for the first three months, Mr. Manawi said. The chief executive will serve for two years and the constitution will be amended to create an empowered prime minister post. The two election commissions will also be reformed.
Mr. Ghani and Mr. Abdullah were in the compound at the same time at multiple points during the day, Mr. Cunningham said. But American diplomats kept them apart "not because there was any danger that passing by each other they would cause any problem, but just because we were trying to keep the conversations separate until the very end."
Once deals with both were secured, Mr. Cunningham said, "then we would ask them both to come together to ratify that, and that is, in fact, what happened." After weeks of intense bad feelings between their camps, Mr. Abdullah and Mr. Ghani embraced in the living room after striking the deal. They would do the same thing a short while later, at the end of news conference to announce their agreement to the Afghan people.