A Bitter Election Dispute Sends Afghanistan Back to the Brink

KABUL, Afghanistan — Three months after Afghanistan’s presidential vote, the entire electoral process is stalled in a dispute that Afghan and Western officials say could pose an even greater threat to stability than the last such crisis, five years ago.

Supporters of opposition candidates have besieged half a dozen election offices around the country for weeks, vowing to fight rather than accept another U.S.-brokered compromise like the one that resolved the 2014 dispute. Security officials worry that one wrong move could tip the protests into bloodshed. And election officials say a biometric verification process that was supposed to prevent voter fraud may have been compromised by human error.

In the middle of it all — again — is Abdullah Abdullah, making his third attempt to become president, and for the third time falling into a bitter standoff with election officials.

This one is likely to play out differently. With American diplomacy focused on negotiating an end to the long war with the Taliban, Western officials say the United States has made it clear that it will not be stepping in like it did five years ago. Then, Secretary of State John Kerry negotiated a power-sharing deal between Mr. Abdullah, now Afghanistan’s chief executive, and Ashraf Ghani, now the president, that Mr. Kerry said had averted a civil war.

Since Mr. Abdullah and his supporters forced the American intervention in 2014, he has tried to project an image of unity, playing his part in a “power sharing” government in which Mr. Ghani, in reality, has kept a lock on the power.

But Mr. Abdullah’s supporters are warier of him this time, though they say they are firm in rejecting what they see as fraud perpetrated to keep Mr. Ghani in office.

Even as Mr. Abdullah insists he will not give in, the strongmen who have rallied around him are worried, according to interviews with advisers and political brokers. In private, they have repeatedly raised their concern about Mr. Abdullah, often to his face: Will the man who has challenged two previous votes before compromising stick to the fight this time, or will he again strike a deal for his own political survival?

“One’s own survival as a politician, if that is the aim of somebody — he is misleading and he is misled,” Mr. Abdullah said during an interview with The New York Times, acknowledging his allies’ concerns and saying he was determined to fight.

“Ghani is a challenge for the country, not for me,” he said. “The point is how to replace him through circumstances in which the country is not lost.”

The truth is that the hodgepodge coalition of political leaders around the chief executive has little choice: They came at the last minute to Mr. Abdullah, who says he had been thinking of sitting out this race, because they couldn’t agree on another candidate.

For many of these former warlords and commanders, this is an ultimate fight of sorts. Mr. Ghani marginalized them, some to the point of repeated humiliation, and has promised to do so even more if he wins a second term.

Among those fighting for relevance is Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, the erratic Uzbek commander whom Mr. Ghani made his vice president in 2014 to gain the support of his constituency, then stripped of much of his authority.

General Dostum has been camped out in his northern stronghold in support of Mr. Abdullah, warning of a blood bath if soldiers use force against protesters. At closed-door meetings of Mr. Abdullah’s political circle, another bullish northern commander repeatedly offered to take over a couple of provinces, kicking out the governors and police chiefs to send a message.

Mr. Abdullah frequently meets with Western ambassadors and generals to try to leverage the street demonstrations, officials say. Where the United States and NATO stand on the election is still seen as crucial, given Afghanistan’s dependence on their aid and support.

After Mr. Ghani appeared with President Trump during his Thanksgiving Day visit to American troops in Afghanistan, Mr. Abdullah’s advisers were angry and confused, demanding to know why their candidate was being undermined by the Americans in the middle of an election dispute. Officials said that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo later called Mr. Abdullah in what appeared to be an attempt to placate him.

At the heart of the dispute is 300,000 questionable votes that Mr. Abdullah’s supporters say the election authorities have counted without transparency, which could favor Mr. Ghani. The ballot verification system has indicated that about 100,000 of those votes were cast outside voting hours — in some cases, by months.

The election commission attributes that to human error in setting the time on devices that collect voters’ biometric data and register the time of their vote. Mr. Abdullah’s team accuses election officials of trying to belatedly alter the rules in Mr. Ghani’s favor.

“Any game has predetermined rules and you can’t change those rules after the game,” said Enayatullah Babur Farahmand, Mr. Abdullah’s running mate. “Even in football, when the ball is out of bounds, it’s out — you can’t make up excuses and explanations to count it in after it’s out.”

Mr. Ghani’s team has portrayed Mr. Abdullah as a master of obstruction, accusing him of purposefully muddying the waters until he can get a share of power.

Friends and diplomats say Mr. Abdullah’s political endurance has as much to do with circumstance and luck as with his ability to play the long game. His skill lies in forging consensus in the toughest circumstances, and it has kept him relevant in Afghan politics.

An ophthalmologist by training, Mr. Abdullah was a low-level liaison officer in the anti-Soviet guerrilla campaign, one of a group of fighters that years later would be central in supporting the United States invasion in 2001. After the Taliban were ousted, he became foreign minister and then leader of the opposition.

He has risen above many other senior figures from Afghanistan’s north by balancing a narrative of guerrilla resistance with a modern outlook, dressing in expensive business suits and carrying himself with ease at receptions in Western capitals.

The first time Mr. Abdullah ran for president — in 2009, against the incumbent Hamid Karzai — he claimed foul when Mr. Karzai was declared the winner. When international pressure forced that vote to a runoff, Mr. Abdullah pulled out of the race, to his supporters’ dismay.

In 2014, Mr. Abdullah believed he had won the election in the first round, but he agreed to a runoff with Mr. Ghani, thinking his opponent had no chance. When the election commission said Mr. Ghani had won, Mr. Abdullah immediately alleged widespread fraud.

His supporters, much like today, wanted to declare a parallel government, block highways and take over provinces. Mr. Abdullah instead urged them to stay calm, and he agreed to the power-sharing deal that the United States brokered after months of stalemate.

How Mr. Ghani treated Mr. Abdullah and his supporters during the ensuing five years is what is shaping the current dispute into a more dangerous fight.

The Afghan president showed little regard for the 50-50 deal once he took office, sidelining Mr. Abdullah and his allies — so much so that the allies turned on Mr. Abdullah, sometimes in messy public outbursts in which they ridiculed their own leader as soft. On one occasion, Mr. Ghani even sent his elite bodyguards to kick out a minister appointed by Mr. Abdullah and lock up his office.

During the interview, Mr. Abdullah said his allies were urging the kind of head-on clash with Mr. Ghani that could have brought down the state. Whether out of political convenience or a deep fear of chaos, Mr. Abdullah has repeatedly told his advisers that pushing too far could tilt the country into anarchy that people like him would not be able to control.

He now seems faced once again with similar choices. At his pristine mansion, a stone’s throw from Mr. Ghani’s palace, Mr. Abdullah repeatedly pointed his finger in the president’s direction as he gave reasons why this time he would fight to the end.

“If he wins fairly, I have the courage to congratulate him. Don’t worry about my friends — I will go to each and every one of them. I am not here to create problems for the country,” Mr. Abdullah said. “But what I am talking about is not winning based on votes — that’s not acceptable.”

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