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Kabul Chaos: Afghan Election Dispute Could Spill Over Into Peace Process

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani (L) and Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah in 2015
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani (L) and Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah in 2015

Afghanistan has averted a full-blown political crisis after the two main contenders in a bitterly disputed presidential election -- each claiming victory -- agreed to back down from their escalating feud.

Incumbent President Ashraf Ghani -- who was officially declared the winner -- agreed to postpone his inauguration, while his main challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, pledged to halt his attempts to set up a parallel government.

The postponement could allow the U.S. and Afghan power brokers to mediate a solution to the standoff, which threatens to spill over into violence and derail the signing of a historic U.S.-Taliban peace deal on February 29.

The agreement would pave the way for direct peace talks between the Taliban and a delegation consisting of government, opposition, and civil society members. The negotiations are scheduled to start in March.

But observers said the election dispute could further complicate the government's naming of a delegation to negotiate with the Taliban, a process already mired in delays and disputes.

'Destabilizing Actions'

Election authorities last week declared Ghani the winner of the September 28 presidential election -- with some 51 percent of the vote -- narrowly giving him an outright win over Abdullah, who was named runner-up with around 40 percent.

The vote was marred by allegations of vote-rigging, technical problems with biometric devices used for voting, and militant attacks. Local election watchdogs also criticized the transparency of the vote.

Abdullah -- who also lost the two previous presidential elections and currently serves as Afghanistan's chief executive officer -- slammed the result announced on February 18 as a "coup" and vowed to form "an all-inclusive government."

Since then he has named his own governors in two northern provinces while his supporters have held rallies in three other provinces and in the capital, Kabul, in the past week.

Abdullah and Ghani both planned to take separate oaths of office this week.

Ghani agreed to postpone his inauguration by two weeks. Abdullah's team said they had also postponed their parallel swearing-in ceremony for a fortnight.

The United States has stopped short of recognizing either man's claim of victory, urging them to resolve the dispute through "constitutional and legal procedures."

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus urged the sides on February 25 to refrain from "the use or threat of violence" and form an "inclusive" government.

In remarks aimed at Abdullah, Ortagus said Afghan leaders should "desist from taking destabilizing actions," including establishing unconstitutional "parallel government structures."

Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said "we're on the cusp of an enormous, enormous political opportunity," referring to the U.S.-Taliban peace deal, adding that Washington would not let any group "spoil it."

The remarks came after the U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, spent a week shuttling between Ghani and Abdullah's offices and meeting with their key backers in an attempt to mediate a solution.

'Acts Of Violence'

"The worst-case scenario would be if the crisis, which has remained largely rhetorical and political up to this point, progressed toward civil unrest or open acts of violence," said Andrew Watkins, a senior analyst for Afghanistan at the International Crisis Group.

"As much as Abdullah's camp may continue to show signs of pressing forward with a 'parallel government,' there are not many visible signs that these moves are progressing toward open, violent contest," added Watkins.

The best-case scenario, analysts said, would be a de-escalation between the two sides that would allow the government to function and the peace process to continue.

"Without a compromise, it would be difficult to break the current stalemate which might take a turn for the worst," said Ali Adili, a researcher at the Afghanistan Analysts Network, an independent think tank in Kabul.

"No one can afford such a scenario given the current opportunity for the signing of a peace deal between the U.S. and the Taliban as well as the start of an intra-Afghan negotiation process," he added.

Adili said several compromises had been pushed by Abdullah's team and others who have rejected the election results.

One would be to annul those results declaring Ghani the winner and continue with the current government until intra-Afghan negotiations with the Taliban produce a political settlement.

Another possibility could be to accommodate those outside the current government within a new power-sharing framework.

In 2014, a bitter, fraud-marred presidential election pushed Afghanistan to the brink of civil war before U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry brokered a power-sharing deal between Ghani and Abdullah.

The agreement created the new position of chief executive officer, given to Abdullah to assuage his doubts about the election results.

Incentives For Both Sides

The political infighting in Kabul has threatened to disrupt the proposed U.S.-Taliban deal that would mean the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan, in what could be a major step toward ending the nearly 19-year war.

As part of the deal, the Taliban is obliged to launch direct negotiations with the Western-backed Kabul government and other Afghans about a permanent cease-fire and a power-sharing agreement.

Those intra-Afghan talks are slated to start in mid-March.

But there are fears that the feud in Kabul could further complicate the naming of a delegation to negotiate with the militant group.

Washington has called on the government to name "an inclusive, national negotiating team," amid accusations by opposition political figures that they were being sidelined from the process.

Watkins said that, while the current electoral crisis could complicate the naming of an Afghan negotiating team, it could also provide impetus for all parties to resolve the dispute.

"Without the intra-Afghan talks looming -- potentially just weeks away -- there might not have been as much incentive for either side to mediate and resolve [matters] among themselves," said Watkins.

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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the editor for Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.