Michael Kugelman, a South Asia researcher at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C., says Afghanistan is at a critical juncture amid the protracted dispute over the June presidential election results.
In an interview with RFE/RL correspondent Farishta Jalalzai, Kugelman explained the need for a unity government to be formed by the two presidential contenders, Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah.
RFE/RL: Does the election dispute risk plunging Afghanistan into a civil war?
Michael Kugelman: Well, I think that we have reached a critical point. The audit is complete. This means, theoretically, the results of the election could be announced. At that point, the way the loser responds will really determine the immediate trajectory of the country's political stability. I think Ashraf Ghani is expected to be announced as the winner.
Abdullah Abdullah has already rejected the final results because he thinks widespread fraud was committed. If he responds by rejecting the results, and if his supporters decide to respond with violence, there could be a lot of problems. This is why the idea of a unity government is all that is standing between Afghanistan and some very serious unrest that could follow. I hope a power-sharing agreement is concluded before the results are announced.
RFE/RL: In practice, the concept of a unity government did not work very well in Iraq. How promising is it for Afghanistan’s long-term stability?
Kugelman: I think it will be a major challenge to form a successful and sustainable unity government, simply because Afghanistan is filled with divisions, particularly along ethnic lines. That could really make it difficult to have two leaders, who really [stand] on different sides of the divide in many ways, governing in some sort of inclusive fashion.
But I will say that comparing this to Iraq, in my view, is somewhat misguided in the sense that Iraq is a very different place from Afghanistan. Iraq has sectarian divisions that are much more [pervasive] and much more violent than those in Afghanistan. I think for that reason, we can assume it may be messy, it may be difficult, and there may be a lot more to work out, but eventually there will be some sort of a unity government.
RFE/RL: Does Washington have any leverage to broker a deal?
Kugelman: The international community has a lot of credibility and has a lot of leverage because Afghanistan is so heavily dependent on international funding. So certainly the U.S. and some of the European donors can really play a role. We have seen this happening already. Earlier this summer, when Abdullah Abdullah had again rejected the election results and there were concerns and rumors that his supporters were actually planning to take over government facilities, Secretary of State John Kerry came to Kabul and he essentially helped broker the agreement calling for an audit of the run-off election and for a national unity government.
At that point no one really expected the two candidates to agree to anything like that, but they both did. Now, here we are, back at square one in the sense that negotiations over this agreement are deadlocked. I think there is a good chance the U.S. government could threaten to reduce or even cut off future funding to Afghanistan if there is no power-sharing agreement and if violence is initiated.
RFE/RL: Considering the extent to which the U.S. is embroiled in other major global conflicts in Ukraine and Iraq, how much does Afghanistan really matter to Washington and its allies?
Kugelman: The fact that when John Kerry was in the Middle East in recent days to meet with [Arab] leaders about [the threat posed by the Islamic State militants] ISIS, the fact that he did not stop in Afghanistan on the way back home, to me sent a very unfortunate signal. It would have made more sense and it would have been an indication of U.S. interest in engaging in Afghanistan if he had stopped in Afghanistan and tried to work out the tension between the two candidates.
I do think the U.S. will continue to be interested in Afghanistan just because of the stability angel. There is some concern that if U.S. military and civilian support does not continue, Afghanistan could really regress in terms of education, women's rights, and civil rights. So I think the interest will be there, but in order to even talk about the possibility of sustained U.S. engagement with Afghanistan, there needs to be a bilateral security agreement.
RFE/RL: What will happen if that agreement is never signed and all U.S. troops leave Afghanistan?
Kugelman: Afghanistan is located in such a dangerous neighborhood, so I worry that there will certainly be consequences if all these troops leave. I worry, first of all, that a lot of militants who have been fighting in Pakistan--Pakistani Taliban and affiliated groups--will move into Afghanistan and try to help the Afghan Taliban go after the Afghan government. The insurgency could intensify.
What I also worry about when looking at this more regionally, is that a lot of militants fighting in Afghanistan over the past few years have really been Pakistani militants, previously focused on India. Groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba have been fighting U.S. troops there, and with foreign troops leaving, these anti-India groups will be in a position to re-orient and re-position their attention to India. So I do worry that another consequence of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan will be increased instability and even terror attacks in Kashmir or India as a whole. I think the notion of regional stability in South Asia will increasingly become an imperiled one.