In Afghan election dispute, enter the DC lobbyists

Afghanistan presidential hopeful Ashraf Ghani is spending nearly $150,000 a month on lobbying in DC amid a stuttering election audit.

By , Staff writer

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    Afghan presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani speaks with the media in Kabul on August 12, 2014.
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As Afghanistan's election crisis drags on, presumed frontrunner Ashraf Ghani is pulling out all the stops. Preliminary results from a June presidential runoff put him ahead of his rival, Abdullah Abdullah, who cried foul. Now Mr. Ghani is anxious to get his point across – in Washington, D.C.

Mr. Abdullah's insistence that fraud robbed him of a victory has brought Afghan politics to a halt and sparked fears of open warfare between the rival camps. A UN-sponsored audit of the vote and recount continues, with both sides jockeying for leverage. 

Enter the DC lobbyists. 

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

In July, Ghani retained two US outfits that focus on polishing the reputations and influence of foreign politicians. According to regulatory filings, he retained Sanitas International for $45,000 a month to "provide senior level counsel, media relations and key stakeholder outreach... to communicate interests and policies to US and Western media outlets and to build support among key US and Western audiences."

Ghani's election team also retained DC-based Roberti White LLC in July for $100,000 a month to "provide political consultancy and public relations services... including campaign strategy development and implementation, issue formulation and messaging, media consulting, and other services in support of T&C's candidates and activities." T&C refers to "Transformation and Continuity," the name of Ghani's political party. 

Ghani's move underscores how central a role the US has been playing in adjudicating Afghanistan's election dispute.

Last month, US Secretary of State John Kerry thought he had a deal between the two men. Both had agreed to abide by the outcome of a recount, as well as to create a power-sharing arrangement that would dilute the absolute power wielded by outgoing President Hamid Karzai.

That apparent agreement unravelled soon after it was struck, so Mr. Kerry decamped to Kabul again on August 7. As with his July trip, there were handshakes and smiles all around and promises of a "national unity government." But as with the first deal, it didn't take long for the wheels to come off. 

Crisis in the making

Martine Van Biljert, a long-time resident of Kabul and researcher of Afghan politics, saw it coming. She wrote on August 9 that the slow recount process, deteriorating trust between the rival camps, and limited progress on what power-sharing would actually look like, made another crisis likely.

"It remains to be seen whether both candidates will continue to feel bound by this agreement, which will largely depend on the extent to which suspicions of foul play and insufficiently attentive monitoring are rekindled on either side," she wrote. She also pointed out that completing the audit would take more than another month. Afghanistan's original election schedule was for Karzai's replacement to have been sworn in at the start of this month.

She continued:

Looking ahead, it is hard to know what to make of this re-affirmed agreement. There is of course again a sense of relief among many Afghans that the process is not being left to unravel, but there is also a growing feeling of fatigue. The process is becoming dishearteningly repetitious and it is unlikely that the current atmosphere of goodwill and cooperation will be sufficient to last until the audit has been finalised and the details of the new government agreed.

And there are more fundamental problems that this improvised solution may stir up. First there is a risk that the national unity government may boil down to a ‘post-sharing’ agreement, with a few new posts added. Second, the ambiguity with regard to the exact nature of the new positions, which is partly fueled by disagreements, may well continue after the new government has been installed – leading to a need for continued negotiations (and probably outside brokering) on what the rules of the game are and who gets to enforce them. The fractured relationships between the executive and legislative, witnessed in the past years, (see earlier AAN analysis here) may well be mirrored in the new set-up, leading to regular paralysis.

Kerry's agreement included the creation of a "chief executive" position, akin to a prime minister, as a sop to the losing candidate. But at a press conference on Aug. 12, Ghani poured cold water on this aspect of power-sharing. He told reporters that "dual authority is not possible... the position of the chief executive will solely depend on the discretion of the president." 

In response, a powerful pro-Abdullah warlord warned yesterday of an "uprising" if the recount ends with a Ghani victory. Atta Mohammed Noor told the Washington Post, "we do not want a crisis, but we will defend the rights of our people. We will have a big civil uprising. . . . We will occupy government buildings and institutions. . . . we will not recognize the next government because it will have no legitimacy.”

Courting Uncle Sam

The presence of US lobbyists in the rival Afghan camps has contributed to the lack of trust over the election audit. On July 22, a foreigner in the audit room outraged Ghani's camp when he, according to a Ghani aide, argued for ballots in favor of the candidate to be invalidated. Ghani's side briefly withdrew from the process. 

Kate Brannon at Foreign Policy writes that the Afghan Independent Election Commission told her that the man was Tim Shirk, an American who works for Joe Ritchie. Mr. Ritchie, a wealthy American hedge fund manager who is backing Abdullah, partially grew up in Afghanistan and has a long and colorful history of engagement with the country.

Interesting, Abdullah via Ritchie had also retained Sanitas, though focused on efforts in Afghanistan, not in the US. In a May filing, the group said it would work with Abdullah to "develop a communications and outreach campaign to advocate for free, fair, secure and transparent elections in Afghanistan." That filing said work and fees would be pursuant to a later memorandum of understanding that doesn't appear to have been filed, and that Mr. Ritchie was Abdullah's contact with the the firm.

"Sanitas never worked for Abdullah Abdullah or his campaign directly, but were [registered with the U.S. Justice Department] as such because of Ritchie's involvement as a key advisor and supporter," Christopher Harvin, a partner at Sanitas, told FP. "Shortly after our original work ended in June, Dr. Ghani's campaign directly hired the Sanitas team."

Sanitas has been developing a line in assisting foreign politicians in DC of late. Prabowo Subianto, a retired Indonesian general implicated in war crimes in the 1990s, reached a tentative agreement for similar services with Sanitas in July, when he unsuccessfully ran for president. 

Afghanistan's warring presidential campaigns may yet pull back from the brink. But it could take another trip to Kabul from Kerry to break the deadlock. If and when that happens, his staffers will likely be getting an earful from Ghani's US advisors. That's what they're paid to do. 

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