Kerry in Afghanistan trying to avert a presidential crisis, but will Abdullah budge? (+video)

Secretary of State John Kerry is trying to broker a deal to prevent outright conflict over Afghanistan's disputed presidential election. But there are signs that Abdullah Abdullah, who claims fraud stole the presidency from him, is digging in.

By , Contributor

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    US Secretary of State John Kerry speaks with Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah, left, at the start of a meeting at the US Embassy in Kabul, July 11, 2014. Kerry sought Friday to broker a deal between Afghanistan's rival presidential candidates as a bitter dispute over last month's runoff election risked spiraling out of control.
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Secretary of State John Kerry was in Kabul today for a series of talks with President Hamid Karzai and other Afghan politicians, trying to head off a crisis over Mr. Karzai's successor.

But while the US has substantial leverage – the government relies on foreign aid, the lion's share from the US, for all its functions – one of the two men at the center of the showdown over the presidential election has been giving signs he won't budge.

Abdullah Abdullah is that man, and he's been here before.

Recommended: How well do you know Afghanistan? Take our quiz.

Dr. Abdullah ran for president against Karzai in Afghanistan's last election in 2009, but withdrew from the runoff round saying massive fraud for Karzai made the exercise a waste of time. This time, while complaining of fraud favoring his opponent Ashraf Ghani, he participated in the runoff. Preliminary results have Dr. Ghani the winner, and Abdullah's angry.

What hangs in the balance now is the first ever-peaceful transfer of leadership in Afghan history. The US government is worried that its decade of nation-building could go up in flames, as Mr. Kerry said today. "The election legitimacy hangs in the balance. The future potential of the transition hangs in the balance," Kerry told reporters.
 
Abdullah's camp alleges that up to 2 million of the votes in the runoff are tainted by fraud, has publicly mulled the prospect of setting up their own alternative government, and questioned the honesty of the country's Independent Election Commission (IEC), where a senior official stepped down after an audiotape surfaced that purported to include him discussing stuffing ballot boxes. While Abdullah won the biggest share of the vote in the eight-way first round, the preliminary count shows that Ghani took 56 percent of the vote in the June 14 runoff.

Kerry's job in Kabul is to see if he can get the two parties to compromise. Unrest would also severely complicate the Obama administration's withdrawal plans.

People close to Abdullah, though, say he's not in the mood to play ball and isn't interested in making a deal that might give him and his supporters seats in the cabinet in exchange for withdrawing their elections. Amrullah Saleh, the former intelligence chief who backed Abdullah in the runoff, said Abdullah should stand firm. “Abdullah has won the elections. Anything less than presidency is not acceptable for him," he told the Monitor.
 
“His words and actions have made it clear that he won’t accept anything short of the presidency," a person close to Abdullah who asked not to be named said. 

Demands

Abdullah had demanded that IEC senior official Zia ul-Haq Amarkhail resign after the alleged ballot-stuffing tape emerged. Yet the fulfillment of this demand last month was not enough to satisfy him.
 
Though Abdullah has been in talks with officials from the United Nations, Germany, and the United States — including Sens. John McCain (R) of Arizona and Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina — no progress has been made.
 
By this afternoon, as closed door meetings between Abdullah and Kerry were underway, local media reported that though a proper audit was one of Abdullah’s chief concerns, he had rejected a United Nations proposal that called for the auditing of 8,000 polling stations, up from the 7,000 announced last week. Ghani has expressed his approval of the UN plan, but Abdullah wants an audit of 11,000 sites – a mammoth undertaking in a country plagued by poor infrastructure and insecurity.
 
Former intelligence chief Saleh, whose Green Trend Movement has popularity among young, urban voters, says it may not matter what Abdullah does. “If he shows compromise he will lose relevance and his core supporters will resist against the biased system without him.”
 
Repeated telephone and online requests to Abdullah’s team for further comment were not returned by press time.
 
To be sure, not all who support Abdullah think a showdown is good for either him or the country. An Abdullah campaign worker, speaking on condition of anonymity, accused Saleh of trying to lead the team down a dangerous path.

Breaking point

“At this point in the game, supporters on both sides feel they are owed something by the candidates they supported. Saleh joined in late, but is trying to be a hero Abdullah will be indebted to," he says, warning that could prove a dangerous course.
 
“These people [former Mujahidin who support Abdullah] haven’t fought in over a decade but if this continues to become an ethnic game, you don’t think the Pashtuns in the south and the east, including the Taliban, won’t join in on the fight?”

Saleh is an ethnic-Tajik and former fighter against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and a long-time opponent of the ethnic-Pashtun based Taliban. Abdullah comes from a mixed background, but his support is strongest among Tajiks. Ghani is Pashtun, and both sides have largely ethnically-defined constituencies.

The campaign worker points to recent ethnic incitement, like chants of “death to” Ghani and Karzai,  that could lead to an outbreak of fighting over the election. 
 
A Kabul-based analyst, who characterized Saleh as a “political hawk,” said the former intelligence chief does not represent the entirety of Abdullah’s support.
 
“There are also doves – those who think not of immediate gains from violent or aggressive behaviors, but also the long-term consequences both for the team and a future government,” the analyst, who asked not to be named, said.
 
Abdullah heeding the advice of the hawks, said the analyst, “would destroy his team well before it would the nation itself.”

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