John Kerry helped Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah reach a truce, but Afghanistan has to start working things out on its own.  Photographer: Jim Bourg/AFP/Getty Images
John Kerry helped Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah reach a truce, but Afghanistan has to start working things out on its own.  Photographer: Jim Bourg/AFP/Getty Images

Dogged U.S. diplomacy last weekend kept alive, for now, the prospect of the first peaceful transition of power in Afghanistan. Yet for democracy to ever take root in Afghanistan’s stony soil, the effects of an earlier and less helpful U.S. intervention must be reversed.

Leaving Afghanistan

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was in Kabul to resolve a dispute between former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah and former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, the two presidential candidates in a June 14 runoff who have each claimed victory amid allegations of voting fraud. Plans by Afghanistan’s election monitors to perform a partial audit of polling stations with higher-than-expected turnout failed to allay the fears of Abdullah, whom preliminary results put in second place; he threatened to form his own government. Kerry hammered out an agreement between the two men for an audit of all 8 million votes cast, with the certified winner to form a “government of national unity.”

Even a full-scale audit, supervised by monitors under the auspices of the United Nations, won’t eliminate the possibility of fraud. Still, it will shore up public faith in the voting process and the credibility of the winner.

Yet plans for a national unity government remain unclear. The loser may play the role of chief executive or de facto prime minister to the winner's president; cabinet positions and other nominees may either be formally allocated or the losing side would be able to nominate candidates "based on capacity, ability, qualification and expertise," as one representative from Ghani's camp put it. The Afghan constitution may be amended in two years to create the position of prime minister, along with other reforms. In other words, the bazaar is very much open.

The good news is both candidates have experience that, on paper at least, might make them good leaders; both have agreed to sign a bilateral security agreement with the U.S., which is crucial to a continued American military presence; and, last but not least, both seem to recognize that the winner-take-all model embodied in an all-powerful chief executive bodes ill for stability in a country riven by ethnicity and geography.

That was the system favored by the U.S. when the constitution was drafted. As a 2003 U.S. diplomatic cable reported, the U.S. ambassador told a French constitutional expert that "Afghanistan needed a strong President given all the vectors of power" and to avoid "endless crises." With U.S. support, then-President Hamid Karzai stripped out provisions for a prime minister in the draft constitution. He also arrogated to himself powers that made him, in effect, King Karzai, with the ability to appoint "high-ranking officials" and a big chunk of parliament. Karzai has used his powers to try to balance Afghanistan's many ethnic factions, yet the country's history suggests that strong central government has been the exception, not the rule, and is not to be confused with good governance.

In addition to creating the post of prime minister, Afghanistan's next leaders would be wise to consider other changes that devolve power away from Kabul. Allowing direct elections for governors and district administrators, with term limits, would make them more responsive to local concerns; enabling these elected officials to raise and spend taxes locally would also advance that end. Encouraging the development of political parties, which Karzai has resisted, would in the long run both strengthen the functioning of parliament and weaken ethnic and regional power blocs.

"Democracy" -- an abstract concept cynically invoked by Afghan politicians of all stripes, from monarchists to communists -- still smells foreign to many Afghans. They want representative institutions that grant them some control over their own lives. They don't want them imposed from outside or above. Whether the outside world likes it or not, Afghans have to decide what's best for them largely on their own.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View's editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.