Abdullah Abdullah's accusation that his opponent in the Afghan presidential runoff, Ashraf Ghani, has engaged in massive vote fraud threatens to undermine the very same election process by which he hopes to be elected.
The validity of Abdullah's accusation is largely immaterial to the damage he may do to the already tenuous long-term political legitimacy of Afghanistan's government.
Wednesday, Abdullah accused Ghani and President Hamid Karzai of rigging the second round of voting in Afghanistan's election. He demanded a halt to the vote-counting, withdrew his election observers and suspended cooperation with both the Independent Election Commission (IEC) and the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC), the established avenue for fraud complaints.
As Jan Kubis, the special representative for the UN secretary general for Afghanistan, pointed out, both Abdullah and Ghani signed a code of conduct pledging to cooperate with the electoral commission.
"We believe the electoral process should continue as laid out in the laws passed by the National Assembly," Kubris said, noting that appeals such as Abdullah's circumvent the established legal framework and could incite violence.
Abdullah's doubt damages the possibility of a democratic transition of power. Few Afghan rulers have successfully passed on the mantle of leadership. Since 1973, no Afghan ruler has peacefully transferred power to another. All four communist presidents -- Taraki, Amin, Karmal and Najibulllah -- were either assassinated or otherwise deposed. In Najibullah's case, he was deposed by the mujahedin in 1992 and then assassinated by the Taliban in 1996.
Mujahedin leadership did not fare much better, falling into a vicious civil war in 1992 immediately after ousting the communists. The Taliban were driven from power in 2001 and have harried the current Afghan state since, constantly contesting its legitimacy.
Karzai stepping down this year is an achievement in itself. The election's first round elicited a considerable amount of international optimism, which is waning in light of Abdullah's allegations. In parallel, the unrelated unraveling of Iraq is difficult for the Washington establishment to view in isolation. The shadow of Iraq hangs over Afghanistan.
Fusing legitimacy to popular sovereignty matters much more to the future of Afghanistan than the specific individual elected. This is why it doesn't matter whether Abdullah's accusations are true or not; his timing could not be worse.
"It will be some time before we know the outcome of the vote," James Dobbins, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan said at a Senate hearing Wednesday. Preliminary results are due July 2, and a full count will not be completed until the end of July.
Dobbins urged both candidates and their supporters to be patient, saying that "premature or undocumented allegations of fraud are as dangerous as fraud itself."
Either Abdullah is right and Ghani has engineered a victory for himself, or Abdullah is wrong and merely unwilling to accept defeat. In both cases, Afghanistan loses. By casting doubt on the election and withdrawing himself from the agreed upon process for complaints Abdullah is enabling his supporters and others to contest Ghani's possible electoral victory. If Abdullah's supporters refuse to stand behind Ghani, should he be elected, the entire process was all for nothing. This remains true in reverse: If Ghani's supporters refuse to recognize an Abdullah presidency, then Afghanistan's political legitimacy further crumbles.
Achieving the milestone of a peaceful democratic transition of power is vital to Afghanistan's future.
Friday, Karzai changed course and surprisingly endorsed Abdullah's call for the UN to get involved in investigating his claims of election fraud. Karzai told Kubis that the involvement of the UN would be "a good step toward ending the problems, because any organization that can help Afghanistan in this issue is appreciated."
The question now is whether Abdullah and Ghani will accept whatever the UN may discover. Furthermore, their supporters across the country also need to accept UN involvement for this effort to successfully settle the issue. Either Abdullah or Ghani will loose the election, and both must accept this possibility.