x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Abdullah's retreat puts peace in jeopardy

The decision by Hamid Karzai's chief rival may further discredit Afghanistan's president.

Even before beleaguered Afghanistan's attempt to right itself with elections went further awry yesterday, optimism over its chances for stability was an ominously rare and increasingly endangered commodity. The announcement by Abdullah Abdullah, the chief rival to the Afghan president Hamid Karzai, to withdraw from a run-off ballot, scheduled for this Saturday, only jeopardises those chances further.

His decision is likely to further discredit Mr Karzai, the apparent winner of the election by default. It also is likely to embolden the Taliban and deepen tensions between the incumbent's ethnic Pashtun political base in the south and Mr Abdullah's ethnic Tajik supporters, concentrated in the north of the Central Asian nation of 23.4 million people. Mr Abdullah's decision came amid contentious deliberations in Washington over whether to send tens of thousands of additional troops to Afghanistan to fight the Taliban and their al Qa'eda allies beyond the extra 21,000 soldiers that Barack Obama committed this year. Currently, there are 68,000 US troops deployed there.

In August, Lt Gen Stanley McChrystal, the top US and Nato commander in the country, warned that without more troops, the eight-year conflict "will likely result in failure", according to a confidential assessment leaked to the media. Since then, violence has appeared to increase across the board, with October earning the ignominious distinction of becoming the bloodiest month yet for US troops, with 54 dead, up from the previous high of 51 in August and raising the number of allied military dead since 2001 to 1,500.

Equally worrying was last week's suicide attack at a UN guest house in Kabul, which killed eight people, five of them foreigners. Although far smaller in scope, the assault bore an eerie resemblance to a similar attack on UN headquarters in Baghdad in 2003, which signalled Iraq's descent into near all-out sectarian war. Mr Abdullah's withdrawal from the election contest was the latest setback in efforts to legitimise the central government in Kabul and extend its writ beyond the capital's boundaries to the far reaches of the rugged, harshly beautiful country, roughly the size of France.

By backing only the second democratic election in Afghanistan's history - the first was in 2004 - the United States and its allies hoped to help inoculate Afghanistan from what they view as the contagion of religious and political extremism that saw it go from expelling the occupying Soviet army in the late 1980s to becoming a base for Osama bin Laden and al Qa'eda a decade later. With Mr Abdullah's withdrawal seemingly expected, however, Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, did her best at damage control during a stop on Saturday in Abu Dhabi. "I don't think it has anything to do with the legitimacy of the election," Mrs Clinton told reporters.

Yet it was precisely the legitimacy of the election that Mr Abdullah called into question yesterday in announcing his withdrawal, saying in televised remarks that there was no guarantee that widespread fraud would not occur again, despite an intensive effort to remedy the problems that marred the first round of balloting in August. A "transparent election is not possible", said Mr Abdullah, a one-time foreign minister in Mr Karzai's government. "Afghan people deserve a better election."

A partial UN-sponsored recount of the August 20 balloting found more than one million votes, most of them for Mr Karzai, were suspect, putting his tally below the 50-per-cent threshold needed for a first-round win. Mr Karzai had defended the vote, saying statements criticising the ballots were "totally fabricated". After Mr Abdullah's announcement, officials of the independent election commission said the voting would proceed as scheduled. Mr Abdullah stopped short of urging his supporters to boycott the second-round vote, sparking speculation that he would be open to a power-sharing deal with Mr Karzai.

Indeed, such political horse-trading - a hallmark of Afghan politics - may have been a factor in Mr Abdullah's choice to pull out. Citing two unnamed sources it described as "close to the negotiations", the Associated Press reported that Mr Abdullah made his decision after talks with Mr Karzai over such a deal broke down late last week. Meanwhile, supporters of Mr Karzai, who has enjoyed prickly relations with Europe and the United States in recent years and has been the target of at least four assassination attempts since 2002, tried to make the best of it.

Waheed Omar, a campaign spokesman, said it was "very unfortunate" that Mr Abdullah had withdrawn but that Saturday's vote should proceed. "The process has to complete itself; the people of Afghanistan have to be given the right to vote," Mr Omar said. Despite that curtsey to the importance of the democratic vote, however, the Afghan people - only 28 per cent of whom are said to be literate - will now likely require even more convincing about the salutary effects of going to the ballot box and selecting the people who govern them.

Theirs is a geographically and politically fractured country, beleaguered by decades of war and military occupation, and ruled more by loyalty to family, clan and ethnic group than to candidates espousing a "national" vision. Email:cnelson@thenational.ae