Thursday, July 24, 2014

Terry Glavin analyzes, and celebrates, the power-sharing agreement in Afghanistan

One of the few pieces of good news on the international scene lately was the announcement of what looks like a promising and potentially constructive power-sharing deal between the two main candidates in Afghanistan's recent presidential election, Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani. If the deal actually holds, it will not only help defuse the crisis surrounding this particular election, but may also serve as a first step toward reforming some of the dysfunctional and pathological features of Afghanistan's political system—which is excessively centralized and presidential and winner-take-all in form, while simultaneously fragmented, clientelistic, ineffective, and corrupt in practice.

US Secretary of State John Kerry played a mediating role, so if this arrangement works out with any degree of success, he will probably deserve some of the credit. But most of the credit (again, if this actually works) should go to the Afghan political figures involved.

For an informed, illuminating, and optimistic assessment of how and why this agreement might turn out to be a big deal, see the piece below by the Canadian democratic-left journalist and author Terry Glavin. Glavin's engagement with Afghanistan over the past decade and a half has been personal as well as analytical, and his sympathies for the Afghan people run very deep. (They come through, for example, in his 2011 book Come from the Shadows: The Long and Lonely Struggle for Peace in Afghanistan; see also here.) As you can see, there is also a distinctively Canadian element in Glavin's analysis here. Where the Afghans and their future are concerned, Glavin is hoping for the best, in the face of a lot of very strong reasons for being pessimistic—and so should the rest of us. Meanwhile, there's some useful food for thought here.

—Jeff Weintraub

Ottowa Citizen
July 16, 2014
Fixing mistakes in Afghanistan
By Terry Glavin

It is moving testimony to the statesmanship and generosity of both of Afghanistan’s leading presidential contenders that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has been allowed to take credit for having pulled Afghanistan back from the abyss. Discretion being the stuff of valour’s best bits, it wasn’t until well after Kerry had arrived at the Palais Coburg in Vienna, when all eyes had turned to his efforts on behalf of the Obama administration’s shambling Iranian nuclear negotiations, that the full outlines of last weekend’s Kabul agreement were allowed to leak out.

The most sweeping, deal-clinching feature of the agreement that ended up unlocking Afghanistan’s tainted-vote conundrum went wholly unmentioned while Kerry was in Kabul. It is an arrangement far more complex than the one Kerry announced Saturday at the United Nations Afghanistan headquarters with UN Afghanistan director Ján Kubiš at his side. Neither did Kerry say anything about it during his remarks later in the day at the presidential palace, in the company of Afghanistan’s twilight president, Hamid Karzai.

Initiated by Afghanistan’s April 5 first-round vote frontrunner Abdullah Abdullah and graciously accepted by the come-from-behind June 14 tainted-vote winner Ashraf Ghani, the arrangement’s central feature is the candidates’ mutual commitment to a thoroughgoing, long-haul constitutional revolution in Afghanistan.

Leaving that all unmentioned was necessary to allow Kerry to save face, and not only because the constitutional-reform project is in aid of undoing the disfigurements in Afghan democracy that the United States insisted on building into the country’s political and electoral system a decade ago. It was also because just one of those malignancies is the presidential vote-rigging toolbox Karzai and his cronies fully utilized in 2009, which caused precisely the agony that Kerry himself, while chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had taken such pains to anaesthetize by his personal interventions in Afghanistan’s bollixed presidential elections of that year.

What goes around comes around, as they say.

In 2009, Kerry was oddly credited for convincing Karzai to agree to do what Karzai was unavoidably obliged by Afghan law to do anyway, which was to submit to the runoff vote ordered by the Elections Complaints Commission, headed at the time headed by Canadian Grant Kippen and still independent of Karzai’s grasp, after the commission’s discovery of vast heaps of faked votes. But Kerry’s neatest trick back then was to convince Abdullah, Karzai’s most formidable challenger in 2009′s presidential contest, to pull out of the race for the sake of “stability” and on the promise that the U.S. would see to it that the country’s gruesomely manipulable electoral system would be repaired.

That promise turned out to be hollow. The 2010 parliamentary election was an open market in counterfeit votes, and by 2012 the Obama administration had given everybody in Afghanistan the impression that “stability” sufficient to allow a cheap American exit from the whole scene was the only thing the U.S. cared about accomplishing in Afghanistan, owing to delicate and “war-weary” domestic sensibilities, especially within Obama’s Democratic Party base.

Thus, what both Ghani and Abdullah were left with by the time Karzai’s term was up this year was an American-monkeywrenched constitution that had allowed Karzai to turn the country into something that resembled not so much a republic as a Pashtun khanate, with a bizarre single, non-transferable voting (SNTV) system otherwise peculiar to such jurisdictions as the Pitcairn Islands, Vanuatu, the near-absolute monarchy of the Kingdom of Jordan and upper houses of Thailand and Indonesia (if it strikes you that this isn’t what 158 Canadian solders had died for in Afghanistan you’d be on the right track, and we’ll return to that in a moment).

How things got this way goes back to 2004, when the U.S. wielded its influence over the architectural drawings for Afghanistan’s post-Taliban constitution in such a way as to establish a strongman presidency that suited the State Department’s convenience and a voting system with a built-in, crippling disincentive to political-party organization. Such was the dysfunction that had left Afghanistan’s June 14 presidential runoff so prone to the “industrial-scale” sabotage that ultimately ruined this year’s elections.

Kerry’s deal brokerage last weekend resulted in two obvious and immediate remedies.

The first is a total recount of the roughly eight million votes tallied from the June 14 runoff. The U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force will return all ballot boxes to Kabul from nearly 24,000 voting districts across Afghanistan. The UN will oversee a process of examining all the dodgy ballot boxes, alongside teams of observers assigned by both Ghani and Abdullah. The second part is the pledge by both candidates that no matter which of them is found to be the legitimate winner of the June 14 vote, the other will be intimately involved in the establishment and administration of a “unity government.” Agreeing to a total recount required a climb-down for Ghani, who had earlier refused to be cajoled into agreeing to revisit any more than a third of the votes. But the “unity government” notion had been a key plank in his own election platform anyway.

The third and most ambitious aspect of the deal – the constitutional reform commitment – has been central to Abdullah’s vision for several years. Its absence from last weekend’s arrangements would have been quite properly a deal-breaker for Abdullah’s supporters, who are heavily concentrated among Afghanistan’s largely marginalized, non-Pashtun northerners. For them, especially, another stolen election would have been an indignity they should never have been expected to tolerate.

When Abdullah and Ghani turn their attentions to the hard work of building a constitutional order suited to Afghanistan, the U.S. would be better situated at the sidelines. Canada, however, is a country well-equipped to making some particularly effective use of itself.

Canada’s unique federal system – the primacy of Parliament, clear constitutional jurisdictions vested in the provinces, transparent distinctions between the head of state and head of government, a functioning multi-party system – provides models that Afghans are already looking at. And Canada’s domestic politics already exhibit a healthy appetite for initiatives from Ottawa that would involve non-military and uniquely Canadian contributions “on the world stage.”

Most importantly, Afghans trust Canada, and full Canadian backing for constitutional reform in Afghanistan would go a long way to redeem the sacrifices Canadian soldiers and their families have made to Afghan democracy’s great cause.

Terry Glavin is an author and journalist.