Monday, Jun 25, 2018
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Back from the brink

The compromise over Afghanistan’s bitterly contested presidential election is a big relief and a credit to all involved, especially Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, the two candidates, and Secretary of State John Kerry, who brokered the deal in 12 hours of intense talks last weekend. It pulled the country back from the risk of civil war and offers a chance for a peaceful political transition after 13 years of Hamid Karzai’s leadership.

Even so, there is no guarantee that the compromise, reached after Mr. Kerry made an urgent trip to Kabul, will endure. This is Afghanistan, a fragile, war-ravaged country with many ethnic, geographic, and political divisions.

Mr. Ghani, a former Afghan finance minister and World Bank official, and Mr. Abdullah, a former foreign minister, are both plausible candidates. But the deal is unlikely to hold up if they cannot resist the destructive influence of some of their allies and their own worst instincts. Mr. Abdullah, for instance, irresponsibly threatened last week to establish a breakaway government.

That means upholding their commitment to a recount, by international monitors, of all 8.1 million votes cast in the June 14 balloting, however challenging that task is. Preliminary results last week showed Mr. Ghani leading Mr. Abdullah with 56.4 percent of the vote. Mr. Abdullah cried foul, and even some neutral observers found Mr. Ghani’s margin of victory less than credible.

The candidates also have agreed that the results will be binding, and that the winner will lead a national unity government. The recount is expected to begin in the next few days and take several weeks, and could delay the planned Aug. 2 inauguration of the new president. But it is the only way to give legitimacy to the electoral process.

The compromise anticipates that the loser or his designee would become “chief executive” for the government, with powers to be settled later. This is intended to assure the loser and his supporters that they will have a meaningful role in the political system. The candidates are also said to have agreed to take the threat of violence off the table and to pursue a reform agenda.

The deal includes longer-term plans to consider reshaping Afghanistan’s government system, which was established in 2001 with substantial American input and includes a president with near-dictatorial powers. But a parliamentary system or other replacement has yet to be agreed on, and altering the existing structure will be contentious.

The compromise is a rare success for American foreign policy. But it would not have been possible without President Obama’s threat to withhold aid, the billions of dollars that have propped up Afghanistan’s economy and underwritten its security forces, and without which it could well go the way of Iraq.

Mr. Obama must be prepared, if necessary, to use that leverage again to ensure the deal is carried out.

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