Afghanistan names new president. But where does power lie?

Afghans finally have a president-elect under a messy power-sharing deal that may end up pleasing no one. And NATO will still be paying the bills. 

Mohammad Ismail/Reuters
Supporters of Afghan presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani celebrate on the street after he was named president-elect in Kabul September 21, 2014.

Afghans went to the polls in April and June to elect a successor to President Hamid Karzai. The result was a standoff between two rivals for the post that brought the central government to a screeching halt and raised the specter of ethnic warlords feuding for spoils. 

Now we have a winner: Ashraf Ghani, the former finance minister, who was named president-elect Sunday by the country's election commission. Mr. Ghani signed a power-sharing agreement with the runner-up, Abdullah Abdullah, who had bitterly contested Ghani's victory in the June run-off. The two men hugged briefly at a somewhat frosty ceremony that appeared to raise as many questions as it answered. 

For months, Afghan voters have waited to find out what was the truth behind Mr. Abdullah's allegations of systematic election fraud. Had millions of ballots been stuffed or falsified? Would a UN-run audit ferret out the reality and settle the claims so that the nation can move on? 

Not exactly. The election commission ducked the question of how many votes it had invalidated and what it meant for the final tally. Instead, commission chief Ahmad Yousuf Nuristani simply declared the winner without providing the final vote count, while saying the numbers would be released later. 

Even the winner seemed put out by this secrecy. Halim Fadai, an official in the Ghani campaign involved in the audit, complained to The New York Times that the UN had caved to pressure from Abdullah's team not to publicize the results. 

Mr. Fadai said officials from the Independent Election Commission had told him that Jan Kubis, who heads of the United Nations mission here, pressured them not to announce the actual results until a week had gone by.

“He argued that the opposing team are armed and they will create a crisis,” he said. “This is very unfortunate. I think the United Nations, instead of supporting democracy, has bowed down to the pressure of the warlords.”

A spokesman for Mr. Kubis could not be reached for a response to Mr. Fadai’s claims.

In a Twitter post, Mr. Fadai published what he said was the commission’s final tally sheet, showing that the vote total was 3.9 million (55.3 percent) for Mr. Ghani and 3.1 million (44.7 percent) for Mr. Abdullah, with 7.1 million votes cast. That suggested that a million votes had been ruled invalid by the election commission, since originally it announced that 8.1 million people voted in the June 14 runoff election between Mr. Ghani and Mr. Abdullah.

US Secretary of State John Kerry has been personally invested in trying to get the two sides to settle and move on. His visit in July yielded a power-sharing deal under which Abdullah, as the runner-up, would get to nominate a prime minister (aka chief executive) with his own council of ministers.

Essentially, there will be two power centers in the executive branch of government. Given the bad blood between the two camps, it will be a test of their political skills to keep it on track. And the result could be an even more bloated executive that costs more to run. 

As the Christian Science Monitor's Dan Murphy wrote in July, the proposed dilution of presidential powers marked a major departure from the governing formula under Mr. Karzai. A weak parliament was no match for the imperial president, which concentrated power in the hands of Karzai and his inner circle. 

The most interesting bit about Afghan's disastrous and personalized centralization of power over the past decade is how it's taken near warfare between enemies of the Taliban for the US to see the writing on the wall.

Ahead of Afghanistan's 2010 election, a senior Western diplomat in Kabul told me: "The parliament doesn't really matter. You could say in some ways that creating such a strong presidency was the original sin of post-Taliban Afghanistan."

The only external check on Karzai's powers, Murphy writes, was Afghanistan's reliance on foreign aid, primarily US, as well as the military muscle of NATO.

Yet this leverage wasn't enough to convince Karzai to sign a bilateral services agreement in order for thousands of NATO troops to remain after the end of 2014. Now it falls to president-elect Ghani, who is expected to be sworn in next week, to sign on the dotted line. 

And what of the Afghan National Army, in which US and NATO forces have invested so much effort to stand up so that their combat troops can stand down? 

Provided Ghani signs the accord, NATO members have agreed to stay on through 2017 to train an Afghan army, at a cost of billions of dollars annually. The Army, along with the national police, is battling with Taliban insurgents, particularly in the southern Pashtun heartland. This, after all, was what brought a US-led coalition to Afghanistan in the first place, since the Taliban had hosted Osama bin Laden and refused to give him up. 

According to the White House, the US has requested $4.1 billion to sustain an expansion in the Afghan security apparatus to 352,000 troops. That's a fairly substantial security force, even by the yardsticks of South Asia, where India and Pakistan both field large militaries. Yet it still faces an uphill challenge to defeat the Taliban, just as NATO troops did. More realistic is some kind of political deal, or local truces, once Western forces disappear from the battlefield. 

The new president will inherit this expensive military buildup. And he will need to own it since his government, in theory, will be on the hook for at least part of it. Per the White House statement, Afghanistan is expected "to assume an increasing portion of [Afghan National Security Forces] sustainment costs beginning with $500 million in 2015." This in a country that relies on foreign aid for most of its public spending. The other main income is opium smuggling. 

Last week, the Afghan government said it was broke and needed more foreign aid to make its September payroll. Government officials told the Washington Post that the post-election impasse had dried up revenues and said they had requested a $537 million bailout. 

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