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US Aims for Afghanistan Elections Are a Whole Lot Different Than They Used to Be

If the US-brokered deal to resolve the Afghan election impasse works, it could give Afghans exactly what they want — less US influence.

by Gary Owen
Jul 28 2014, 5:15pm

Photo via US State Department

Recent weeks have proven that Afghans haven't quite embraced American democracy — or if they have, it’s the Florida-in-2000 variety.

Afghanistan is, however, dealing with issues that are a bit more complicated than hanging chads. Right now the country is in the middle of a UN-supervised election audit that's the result of allegedly fraudulent votes cast during the recent runoff election between Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah. What’s clear is that the audit will decide the winner, who will be the next leader of Afghanistan. What’s not clear is what powers the winner will have, or what role the loser will play in the new government.

Under the plan brokered by US Secretary of State John Kerry, the next president of Afghanistan won't have the same powers currently held by President Hamid Karzai, who enjoys the kind of dictatorial authority one typically associates with Nikita Khrushchev or Kris Kardashian. Instead, the next leader of the graveyard of common sense will share many of those powers with an additional executive officeholder along the lines of a prime minister. It’s a similar arrangement to what Vladimir Putin engineered in Russia so he could run for president a second time.

Given Karzai’s own ambitions, this approach could help him hold onto some measure of power. But whether or not that happens, the current arrangement isn’t a Karzai construct — it was orchestrated publicly by the United States. And while things may not wind up being as contentious between Kabul and Washington as they have been in recent years under Karzai, the days of an American puppet in the Arg are as done as Jose Canseco’s professional boxing career.

Don't ask who's being killed by drones in Afghanistan. Read more here.

Kerry’s latest deal in Afghanistan upends a key tenet of the current Afghan constitution: presidential power. Ratified in 2004 with the blessing of the Bush White House, the constitution gave Afghanistan’s senior elected official executive powers that would make Dick Cheney blush. Under the current constitution, the Afghan president has more executive authority than his American counterpart, part of an effort by the United States to control Afghanistan through its president. Which worked just fine — as long as the Afghan chief executive stayed pliable.

In 2004, Karzai was the best president American money could buy. But money corrupts and reconstruction money corrupts absolutely, and so everything had changed by 2009. Reports of corruption in the Karzai administration were becoming unavoidable, and the US decided Karzai had to go. Attempts to sway the election in favor of his main opponent, Abdullah Abdullah, failed miserably, and America's relationship with Karzai was damaged beyond repair.

Ratified in 2004 with the blessing of the Bush White House, the constitution gave Afghanistan’s senior elected official executive powers that would make Dick Cheney blush.

Now it’s 2014, and the Americans are once again playing a central role in an Afghan presidential election. But this time, instead of helping to pick a winner able to wield his official power to shape the country in his image, the current deal reshuffles power in Afghanistan along more reasonable lines. What should result is a government more capable of compromise and less prone to cronyism; sharing power between the president and a chief executive lessens the sway of any single party. That's not to say personal power won’t play a role in the new government — it just won’t be as easy for one man to enact his own agenda.

Though the deal has been met with optimism, it’s too early to declare this an unqualified victory for Kerry and the Americans. Almost as soon as Kerry left the country, the audit process, meant to move Afghanistan forward into this new power-sharing agreement, hit the first of what promised to be many roadblocks — the latest popped up this past Saturday — as the candidates struggled to agree to terms for the voting audit. Last week, President Barack Obama urged both Ghani and Abdullah to publicly support the UN’s audit process, a not-so-subtle reminder of what had been agreed upon during Kerry’s discussions with the presidential hopefuls.

Whether or not the Kerry-brokered agreement is going to be good for Afghanistan depends on what Ghani and Abdullah do next. If they agree with the audit results, regardless of who is declared the winner, there is the sense among Afghans that the country may be able to move past the American-engineered Karzai era. For Afghans, that's what this election has really been about, even though the story America wants to tell is that the election demonstrated Afghans are not afraid of the Taliban.

Watch the VICE News documentary about Afghan interpreters here.

While Afghans see the value of the power-sharing agreement Kerry put together, they’re also concerned about American influence on the next Afghan president. And young Afghans in particular are not so sure that the next president will be any less corrupt than Karzai. There is a deeply held cynicism among many young Afghans, some of whom refused to vote because of perceived corruption. They don’t blame the current state of affairs entirely on the Americans, but they do insist that their country won’t be able to move forward on its own until the Afghan government is able to rely a little less on Washington for its survival.

Follow Gary Owen on Twitter: @ElSnarkistani

Photo via Flickr

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Ashraf Ghani
nikita khrushchev