New Afghanistan Deal: Secretary Kerry’s Diplomatic Gem

Secretary of State John Kerry, frustrated by various peace efforts in the Middle East in recent months, may finally have accomplished a major diplomatic breakthrough—saving the Afghanistan project from the jaws of defeat.  Had former finance minister Ashraf Ghani and former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah each claimed victory in the June 14 presidential election and formed their own respective governments, the country could have collapsed into civil warfare and thus made possible a return of the Taliban.

Of course, nightmare outcomes are still possible.  But the deal that now requires international oversight for the recounting and review of ALL ballots, with both candidates committed in advance to recognize the results, is far more promising that the previous circumstances (in which suspected Karzai cronies or Pashtun chauvinists were believed to be responsible for certifying the results, and in which planned ballot auditing procedures were much less thorough or transparent).

In addition, the new plan to create a true parliamentary system of government with a strong prime minister offers a suitable consolation prize to whoever loses the presidential race.  It also makes sense for Afghanistan at this stage in its development, since the previous system created a too-powerful president.  The United States made a mistake in how it helped devise the Afghan Constitution in 2003-2004, even if it was an understandable mistake at the time.  The current proposal for a stronger parliamentary system, as well as can be deduced from preliminary reports, provides a sounder basis for power sharing and for inclusive governance.

As noted, much could still go wrong.  The ultimate loser in the election could decide to challenge the UN-certified results after all.  Or the winner might find some excuse to revisit his earlier promise to appoint the runner-up as prime minister.  President Karzai might throw a monkey wrench into the process in some way.  One of the candidates could be wounded or killed in an assassination attempt.  Most likely of all, intense disagreement might occur over how to structure the new prime ministerial position and how much power to afford it.

In addition, the Obama administration needs to revisit its zero option for 2016—the plan to have all U.S. combat troops out of Afghanistan by the end of President Obama’s presidency.  There is no compelling reason to go to zero, as opposed to an enduring force of a few thousand for years to come.  In addition to the good it could still do for Afghanistan’s military, which continues to need improvement and mentoring, such a force could help ensure American influence in addressing any future Afghan political crises.  And it would provide us with bases for drones and commandos should al Qaeda pop up its head again in the tribal areas of western Pakistan or eastern Afghanistan.

But make no mistake, the recent breakthrough is big news at a time when the Obama administration—and the world in general—needed a boost.