KABUL, Afghanistan – Instead of breaking their months-long deadlock, Afghanistan’s two presidential candidates appear to be pushing their country toward the brink of a breakdown.
The political insecurity is rocking the lives of ordinary Afghans, sending crime and unemployment rates soaring – along with fears of spiraling violence and a resurgent Taliban.
"Afghanistan is on the brink of descending back into chaos and civil war,” Afghan lawmaker Nisar Haress told NBC News. “The situation is getting worse every passing day."
Kabul property dealer Payenda Mohammad Ehsan is one of the millions of Afghans feeling the effects.
"People do not feel safe," the 62-year-old said. "It is the ordinary people who are most affected by the current crisis."
The deadlock is especially troubling for the U.S. and NATO ahead of the planned withdrawal of combat troops by the end of the year.
"Afghanistan’s failure would be catastrophic for the U.S. and the West,” Afghan lawmaker Nisar Haress told NBC News. “Afghanistan can become another Iraq very quickly and it will be impossible to contain if that happens."
The outcome of the April election was seen as a make-or-break moment for Afghanistan’s future, with billions of dollars of funds tied to the success of a free and fair election. The U.S. had high hopes for the vote, deeming it a critical test not just of Afghanistan’s ability to ensure a stable transition but also to measure the impact a decade of Western intervention had had on the country.
Former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani led preliminary election results. But after his opponent Abdullah Abdullah alleged widespread vote-rigging, Secretary of State John Kerry swooped in to broker a power-sharing deal and convince the two to agree to a recount and unitary government.
While Kerry was hailed a hero at the time, in the two months since talks to form a government have broken down. The U.S. secretary of state has visited yet again, and President Barack Obama also has reached out to the candidates in phone calls. The official results of the recount are expected next week – though Abdullah has said won’t respect the outcome and Ghani said Wednesday he did not want "a two-headed government."
The bitter feud and ensuing political uncertainty has led to a "sharp rise" in unemployment and crime across the country, a senior security official told NBC News, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Rahim Shirzad, a 42-year-old laborer, has not been able to find work since the start of the election fiasco and said he might have to sell his home to repay debts.
"I have no savings left,” he explained. “I had to sell my wife’s jewelry to buy food and basic supplies."
His only hope, he said, was for Kerry to step back in to force the parties to break the deadlock – though Ehsan admitted even that seemed far-fetched.
"People have lost faith in these politicians who are only interested in their own agenda," he said.
Analysts and officials are fearful the political impasse could embolden the Taliban to stage more brazen attacks – and to seize the opportunity to present themselves as a viable alternative to out-of-touch and paralyzed politicians.
Already, the handover of security control by NATO troops to the Afghan National Army has imbued the Taliban with confidence, according to The International Crisis Group. "Ongoing withdrawals of international soldiers have generally coincided with a deterioration of Kabul's reach in outlying districts," an ICG report said in May.
Kawzia Hakin, a 32-year-old mother of four, said she is terrified of what could come to pass.
“There is a real danger of the Taliban coming back and that will be the worst thing that could happen to us,” the government clerk told NBC News. “As a mother, I appeal to the leaders to please, think of the people, and compromise for the sake of the people."