By ROD NORDLAND
SEPT. 21, 2014
KABUL, Afghanistan — Their campaign workers traded blows over ballot boxes during an election widely seen as fraudulent. Some of the warlords backing them have muttered about starting a parallel government, a potential recipe for civil war in Afghanistan. And they’ve just come out of a vote so discredited that some officials don’t want the final tallies announced.
Now Ashraf Ghani, Afghanistan’s new president-elect, and his opponent, Abdullah Abdullah, have joined together in a national unity government in which they will share power.
After eight months of enmity over the protracted presidential election, with two rounds of voting, an international audit and power-sharing negotiations finally behind them, they will have to confront the challenges of jointly governing a country that in many ways is far worse off than it was before the campaign began last February.
The Taliban have had one of their most successful fighting seasons since the beginning of the war, and the security forces are reeling from heavy casualties, a high desertion rate and poor morale. The Afghan economy is battered by election uncertainty and rising unemployment, and in desperate need of emergency financing from the United States and other donors.
In an interview with The New York Times last month, Mr. Ghani cited a parable to describe the problem confronting them. “Two people are riding in a boat and one of them took a chisel and started making a hole in the bottom and the other one said, ‘What are you doing? You’re going to drown us.’ And the other said, ‘I’m making the hole in my part of the boat.’ ”
“That captures it,” he said. “There are not two boats.”
The agreement forming the new government, brokered by Secretary of State John Kerry, who led an intense diplomatic effort over the past month, makes Mr. Abdullah or his nominee the chief executive of the government, with the sort of powers a prime minister normally has. While reporting to the president, the chief executive will handle the daily running of the government. At the same time, Mr. Ghani keeps all the powers granted to the president by the Afghan Constitution.
Already, supporters for each side have debated whether Mr. Ghani will have more power, or whether Mr. Abdullah will be an equal partner.
That does not bode well. Neither did the brief ceremony Sunday afternoon during which the two men signed the power-sharing agreement in front of President Karzai and their top supporters.
They hugged one another stiffly afterward, to decidedly tepid applause, and the entire event lasted less than a quarter-hour. They failed to show up for a planned joint news conference on Sunday, sending spokesmen instead.
Continue reading the main story While Mr. Ghani and Mr. Abdullah have known one another for many years, having served together in various positions in Afghan governments under Mr. Karzai, they have long had relations widely described as strained.
“They have created a fabricated national unity government, and I don’t think such a government can last,” said Wadir Safi, a political analyst at Kabul University.
The two new leaders have plenty of common ground as well. Both are generally pro-American in their views; Mr. Ghani lived and worked there for many years, and Mr. Abdullah was a frequent visitor, and a close ally when the United States invaded Afghanistan alongside his Northern Alliance.
They both say they plan to sign the bilateral security agreement with the United States the moment they take office. Delayed a year because Mr. Karzai refused to sign it, the agreement is necessary if American troops are to remain in Afghanistan after the end of the current combat mission this year.
With 30,000 Americans and 17,000 other coalition troops still here, planning a sudden withdrawal by the end of the year would have been a challenge, but neither leader wants to renegotiate the agreement. Only a handful of Afghan military and police units are rated as completely self-sufficient without coalition support, which would potentially make a total pullout a disaster that neither leader wants.
There are strong indications, too, that the Taliban have taken advantage of the power vacuum caused by the long election imbroglio to step up their campaign, carrying out 700 ground offensives in the first six months of the current Afghan year, which began March 21, and killing 1,368 policemen and 800 soldiers, more than in any similar period.
Both Mr. Ghani and Mr. Abdullah have similar views on fighting the Taliban, agreeing that the country needs the sort of wartime commander in chief it has not had under Mr. Karzai, who has long seemed as if he simply wanted to wish the war away.
American diplomats who worked closely with both men in recent months, setting up and attending many meetings between the two, say their understanding of one another has grown greatly, and differences have increasingly been greater among some of their harder-line staff members than with each other.
A European official and a former Afghan official said that powerful backers of each candidate appeared to be making no moves to stand down the militias they control, preferring to see what happens in the coming months before sending home the gunmen they had raised over the summer.
“We’ve seen no moves in the north or outside Kabul or in eastern areas where these illegal armies are concentrated,” said the European official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he did not want to further inflame tensions in Afghanistan.
In addition to wartime concerns, their government will have to tackle an economy in deep crisis. The election impasse chased away investment, slowed economic activity and worsened an already growing unemployment problem as the military has been greatly reducing its presence.
By midyear, the Ministry of Finance was reporting net income of less than zero, as the cost of collecting taxes and customs duties exceeded the revenue raised. Afghanistan seemed unlikely to meet even its projected revenue goal of $2 billion this year, which already was $5 billion short of its needs, according to American officials. This month, teachers and other public workers were facing a payless payday, while the government asked donors for $537 million in emergency funding so it could meet its payrolls.
Less quantifiable would be the damage to the reputations of Afghanistan and its supporters in creating a viable democracy — although that, too, could have a price, since donor countries have made a free and fair election and a democratic, peaceful transfer of power the basis for continued aid. In Tokyo last year, for instance, donor nations made satisfactory elections a precondition for $16 billion in development assistance.
Despite as much as a half-billion dollars in international support for the elections and the audit (even the lowest estimates exceed $200 million), in the end the two candidates cut a political deal before the vote totals were even announced.
At the last minute, Mr. Abdullah had threatened to boycott the deal altogether unless the Independent Election Commission did not release the vote totals, and that is what happened Sunday. The commission merely announced that Mr. Ghani was the winner, without citing any numbers.
The European Union’s observer mission, which had more than 410 people here, called the United Nations-supervised audit “unsatisfactory” and expressed “regrets that no precise results figures have been published.”
“Many people risked their lives to vote, some lost their lives and this is a very bad precedent,” said Nader Nadery, the head of the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan, a respected Afghan monitoring group. “To persuade people to come back and vote again will be very hard.”
Mr. Nadery, whose organization monitored the vote, said it had estimated that the final total would be about 54 percent to 45 percent in favor of Mr. Ghani, even after fraudulent votes were discounted. He said there was clearly large-scale fraud on both sides.
American officials were eager to portray Sunday’s outcome as an important milestone, and proof that the country could weather its first change of power peacefully and democratically.
It was emblematic of the confused ending to the election ordeal that no one was even sure when President-elect Ghani would be inaugurated. Under the deal, he is obliged to appoint Mr. Abdullah as chief executive at that inauguration, so they will both be in the same boat immediately.