His marathon effort to broker Middle East peace stalled, and the ultimatum he gave Russia to pull back from eastern Ukraine has been ignored. But Secretary of State John Kerry scored a big diplomatic victory last week: He persuaded both candidates in Afghanistan’s presidential run-off to accept a UN-led audit of all 8 million ballots in the wake of allegations of massive fraud.
His intervention came just as one candidate, Abdullah Abdullah, threatened to set up a parallel administration, which raised the specter of the country splitting along ethnic lines. Kerry’s message — that the United States would not maintain funding for Afghanistan if its leaders went to war with each other over the election — appears to have worked. Kerry’s mediation, during 12 hours of meetings at the US embassy in Kabul, appears to have pulled the country back from the brink for now. Some ordinary Afghans gratefully called for Kerry to be given Afghan citizenship so that he would be eligible to run for president of Afghanistan in the future. “I wish if we could elect him as our president, but we cannot,” one shopkeeper in Kabul told NBC News.
It is still too early to breathe a sigh of relief. There is no guarantee that the country will have a peaceful handover of power once the results of the audit are announced in the coming weeks. Although the two candidates have agreed to abide by the results of the audit, their supporters could still erupt into civil unrest. There are fears that Hamid Karzai, the current president, could use such a situation as a pretext to prolong his own term in office.
One thing is clear: The next president of Afghanistan should seek to amend the Afghans’ election laws and constitution in ways that would avoid a repeat of this confusion in the future — for instance, by clarifying how to settle election disputes and creating a position of prime minister. Until that happens, the behind-the-scenes wrangling over Afghanistan’s next government will continue. John Kerry may be forced to come back sooner than he wants.