While the controversy surrounding Afghanistan's presidential election didn't last long, the country's mainstream political forces are still far from reaching a durable power-sharing arrangement. At a time when the country is fast approaching a post-NATO era and negotiations should be taking place between Kabul and the Taliban rebels, factions within the anti-Taliban camp continue to spar with one another. The jihadist insurgents will be extremely difficult to fight — let alone negotiate a settlement with — if the Afghan state cannot present a unified front.
In a way, the rather speedy resolution of the controversy surrounding this year's presidential election suggests that Afghanistan has matured politically. Former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani was declared the winner of the June 14 runoff poll after he cut a power-sharing deal with his main rival, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, less than two months after the latter alleged electoral fraud. Of course, the United States brokered the deal, but given Afghanistan's violent and chaotic history over the past four decades, the agreement is nevertheless significant.
Still, the deal only gets the country past the deadlock created by allegations of fraud and the complicated process of recounting votes, which remains inconclusive given the election commission's declaration of Ghani as the winner without specifying the margin by which he won the runoff election. Ghani, however, has to share power with his rival, Abdullah, who will either become CEO — a new post equivalent to a prime minister — or name someone else to fill the position. The CEO post will be created by presidential decree until the Afghan Parliament can amend the constitution to create a formal prime ministerial position. Though Abdullah would report to Ghani as the new CEO, both men would have equal powers of appointment.
While the political compromise has helped move the country beyond the impasse of elections, it creates a precedent whereby any future losing candidate can reject the outcome of an election and extract concessions from the winner. Even now, implementing the power-sharing deal will be highly problematic since the new coalition government will be held hostage to disagreements between the two camps. It will be a while before the two sides can truly share power with one another, and it will take even longer for them to operate in any coherent manner, especially since outgoing President Hamid Karzai will remain a political stakeholder behind the scenes.
For now, the United States and both Afghan camps are relieved that, pending presidential signature, the bilateral security agreement will finally be inked and a residual, post-2014 American military presence can be finalized before the end-of-year deadline. The Afghan state will need U.S. support to be able to fend off the Taliban insurgency. While the Taliban cannot militarily overwhelm the Afghan state, neither can Kabul militarily contain the Taliban; the jihadist insurgency will have to be dealt with at some point through a negotiated settlement.
And herein lies the dilemma: How can the Taliban be brought into the mainstream when there is a lack of consensus regarding the political system, even among those who are willing to work within constitutional parameters? As it is, the Taliban are far from the point of being willing to accept the current democratic system. Assuming the Taliban are willing to become moderate to the point of sharing power, as they have indicated in their talks with the United States, they will demand a significant overhaul of the current system.
Hence there cannot be a negotiated settlement for the Taliban insurgency when those who have to negotiate with the jihadist movement cannot agree among themselves on the nature of the polity into which they wish to integrate the Taliban. What is ironic is that the political system in neighboring Pakistan is also marred by controversy as Islamabad engages in a major counterinsurgency effort against its own Taliban rebels. If the political centers in both countries cannot hold, the Afghan-Pakistani cross-border region could end up a jihadist fiefdom, as has happened in the Sunni cross-border regions of Syria and Iraq now under the control of the Islamic State.