This paper sheds light on the background and drivers of the Afghan presidential crisis between the current president Mohamed Ashraf Ghani and his bitter rival Abdullah Abdullah who again rejected the results of the recent presidential elections, declaring that he will seek to form a parallel government. The paper attempts to explore the prospects of the resolution of the crisis in light of the latest developments.
On 18 February 2020, the final results of the Afghan presidential elections, which were held on 28 September 2019, were announced. While president Mohamed Ashraf Ghani considered himself the winner, albeit with a narrow margin, his rival, former chief executive of the National Unity Government, rejected the adjusted final results that gave him 39.52 percent of the total votes against 50.64 percent to his rival Ghani. He described the election results as a “national treason” and called them “illegal”, amounting to a coup against democracy. He declared his intention to form a parallel inclusive government.
This is the third consecutive presidential elections which Abdullah refuses to accept, accusing his rival of being a deceiver. In 2009, Abdullah lost against former president Karzai. In 2014, he lost against Ashraf Ghani after a second round of elections.
Causes of disagreement
Disagreement over the elections is attributable, initially, to the different ethnic groups to which the two men belong. While Ghani is the favourite candidate of the Pashtun majority, Abdullah is considered the first choice for those who belong to other ethnic groups such as, inter alia, Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazara.
On the other hand, the National Unity Government, which was jointly formed by Ghani and Abdullah in the aftermath of the 2014 elections, whereby power was equally shared between the two, was the reason for the start of internal differences between Afghan politicians. It was formed as a result of a political agreement that violates the Afghan constitution. There were numerous differences over power-sharing, the appointment of ministers and the allocation of high-level government posts in the various bodies and institutions, particularly embassies.
Drivers and incentives of settlement
Several developments have recently emerged which are likely to contribute to resolving this repeated crisis, mainly:
1. The challenge of negotiations with Taliban: on 29 February 2020, a peace deal was signed between Washington and Taliban, after negotiations that lasted for 18 months. According to the deal, Afghan-Afghan peace negotiations were supposed to begin on 10 March 2020. Many Afghans feel concerned that the outbreak of disagreement over the presidential elections is in the interest of Taliban which refused to recognize the legitimacy of the current government in Kabul, considering it a “puppet government”. Taliban refused to negotiate with the government, but accepted instead to negotiate with other Afghan groups in the country. If the current problem is not solved, it will lead to the dispersion and multiplicity of the negotiating parties in the peace process, which will make it more complicated and difficult. With the great concern among the Afghan people that Taliban could once again take over control of the country, president Ashraf Ghani and his rival Abdullah are under increasing criticism.
2. The coronavirus crisis: the coronavirus epidemic joined the series of chronic crises in Afghanistan which requires the implementation of practical measures to counter it in a conflict-torn country with a collapsing health system after four decades of war. With a population of 35 million, Afghanistan’s capabilities to provide health care are extremely limited. Consequently, president Ghani and his rival Abdullah are required to live up to their responsibilities and lay their personal and political differences aside to counter the potential of the wide-scale spread of the disease in the country.
3. The fracture in Abdullah’s alliance: over the last few days, Afghan president Ashraf Ghani intensified his pressure on Abdullah. He managed to create a gap between Abdullah and his allies by implementing a carrot and stick policy. Ghani managed to obtain the support of General Abdul Rashid Dostum who stood by Abdullah in the last elections. In fact, Dostum was the first to put forward the idea of the parallel government. However, under the current crisis, Dostum kept absolutely silent. The appointment of his son Batur Dostum as a member of the negotiating team with Taliban indicated that his alliance with Abdullah was something of the past. Earlier, Ghani managed to win over General Ata Mohammed Noor who openly stood against Abdullah, where Ghani appointed Noor’s son Khaled as a member of the negotiating team with Taliban.
In addition, Ghani suspended the budget of Abdullah’s chief executive office, currently considered by Abdullah’s supporters as the headquarters of the presidency, with 900 staff.
It became clear over the last few days that Abdullah has gradually started to lose ground. During a press conference that he held on 26 March 2020, his statements were noticed to be unprecedentedly flexible and his ceiling of expectations unprecedentedly low. All this indicates that Abdullah has become ready to resolve the crisis and accept less than what he had previously demanded. He denied that his requests exceed what is permitted by the constitution.
4. US pressure: it seems that the US is less concerned with the current presidential crisis than before. Washington has remained completely silent at the start of the crisis. The late move came with special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad’s attempt to solve the issue before each of Ghani and Abdullah was sworn in as president on 9 March 2020. Eventually, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo paid a visit to the Afghan capital on 23 March 2020. The purpose of the visit was not to mediate between Ghani and Abdullah, but rather to convey a warning message that the solution of the question is in the hands of Afghans and that Washington will proceed with the withdrawal of its troops regardless of the political crisis shaking Afghanistan and regardless of the political consequences and their impact on war or peace.
This position was made clear when Pompeo said that Washington will not help military operations that serve political purposes, nor the leadership that orders such operations. Neither will it accept the idea of the parallel government. This US position is aimed at exerting a double pressure on both Ghani and Abdullah to lower the ceiling of their expectations, particularly at a time when the world is going through a global political, economic and health crisis because of the coronavirus crisis. Therefore, Washington does not have the luxury of time and effort to mediate in the resolution of the Afghan presidential crisis. Besides, Washington does not want the situation in Afghanistan to explode in a manner that would impede Afghan reconciliation negotiations as one of the main terms of the peace deal between Washington and Taliban.
On the other hand, Washington does not seem to prefer that Ghani be the only decision-maker in the peace process with Taliban. Therefore, it considers that there is a need for a stronger, more comprehensive and more diversified negotiating team to achieve peace with Taliban. Within this framework, Washington considers that Abdullah would be an excellent choice to lead such a wider team, given that he served as foreign minister under former president Karzai and assumed the post of chief executive of the former National Unity Government with Ghani. Besides, his mixed Pashtun-Tajik background makes him a person that favours consensus.
Developments and increasing pressures will most likely drive the two sides of the crisis to seek a way out or a compromise. Certainly, this will not take the form of return to the former National Unity Government in which Abdullah’s share would be 50 percent, or excluding Abdullah and his allies completely from the composition of the Afghan government. The most likely option would be to proceed to the formation of a “broad-based government” that would include the crisis disputants and homeland partners with the aim of creating a favourable environment that allows the launch of the Afghan-Afghan reconciliation process.
Ghani had offered his rival to preside over the negotiating team with Taliban and play a more important role in this respect, in addition to the appointment of one of his allies in the cabinet. Pompeo has asked Abdullah to accept the offer and to play a role in the reconciliation, which is currently the most important issue for both the Afghans and Americans. This seems to be likely within the upcoming few days or weeks.
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