With two erstwhile rivals leading the national unity government, which way is Afghanistan going?
The power-sharing deal that divided authority between two competitors has resolved the crisis for the time being. But will this arrangement address the challenges facing fghanistan?
Last year’s presidential elections in Afghanistan were a rollercoaster ride by all means. Often called a ‘martial’ race, the people of the country were going to elect a new president as the term of Hamid Karzai, the then president of Afghanistan for over 9 years, was coming to an end. The competition was between Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai and Abdullah Abdullah. While the latter was a seasoned politician with years of experience in the complicated political battlefield of Afghanistan, the former was regarded as a statesman by many in the country and
abroad owing to his foreign education and experience of working for wellreputed institutions such as the World Bank.
Both candidates enjoyed massive support in their respective constituencies and ethnic groups. They fought tooth and nail and the outcome was a hung result as none of the candidates could get past the required 50 percent votes. Subsequently, a runoff poll was undertaken but it further worsened the situation as Dr. Abdullah claimed that the polling exercise was not transparent. After months of bickering and maneuvering, a deal was reached between Dr. Abdullah and Dr. Ghani to form a national unity government. According to the deal, the new political arrangement was to have a president and a chief executive officer. As the winner of the run-off polls, Dr. Ghani was declared the president while Dr. Abdullah became the CEO of Afghanistan. The deal essentially meant that the erstwhile rivals had to work together as a team. One has all the powers entrusted by the constitution, while the other is yet to have a legal sanction – either via a grand jirga or the parliament.
It may sound a simple proposition on paper, but the situation on ground is far more complex.
Over six months have passed and there are mixed signs about the success of the power-sharing deal which has basically divided authority between two competitors. Although it resolved the crisis which had erupted after the presidential elections and threatened to derail the political process, the question currently raised by all stakeholders is that will this arrangement address the massive challenges facing Afghanistan?
These include providing a strong administration, clean governance and addressing the economic crisis. Their resolution requires unity at all levels of the executive. However, with two completely different sets of groups trying to share power and run a country, with their mutual disagreements running across the ethnic lines, the task becomes next to impossible. President Ghani is a Pashtun while Dr. Abdullah is of a mixed PashtunTajik origin. Both are answerable to their ethnic communities which account for the bulk of their vote bank. In addition to their respective support, the two politicians also have to consider the demands of provincial governors. They are also supposed to keep the warlords happy who enjoy considerable influence in some areas.
The power-sharing deal was brokered mainly because of the U.S. and the influence it holds in the internal matters of Afghanistan. This involvement in the country’s affairs is a matter of concern for the Afghan government as it is difficult to gauge the U.S.’ commitment to Afghanistan once its troops leave the country. The role of the U.S. in bringing some semblance of stability in Afghanistan, especially in the post-election scenario, however, can’t be denied. The multiple visits of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his constant negotiations with both parties ensured that the electoral process did not go to waste. It was clear that Dr. Abdullah was not willing to accept the result of the presidential elections and wanted to pursue the path of protest. At that critical juncture, it was Kerry who made efforts to bring together the two contestants to the table.
However, analysts are uncertain about whether the U.S. will display a similar show of time and patience for Afghanistan’s domestic matters in the future as well. Already, its hands are full and it may not be able to afford a full-time engagement in the country. Also, the U.S. is not too pleased about its experience of working with Hamid Karzai who was installed in the presidency mainly at the U.S.’ behest. After ruling Afghanistan for years with the blessings of the U.S., Karzai very conveniently started identifying with his Afghan roots towards the end of his tenure.
The parting left a bad taste in the U.S.’ mouth and its ambassador to Afghanistan, James B. Cunningham called Karzai “ungrateful and ungracious.” The dilemma of the new Afghan government is that whether it likes it or not, it has to work closely with America. Afghanistan’s institutional infrastructure is too weak at the moment to address on its own the prevailing problems of corruption and poor governance. What goes in the Afghan government’s favor is that it signed the Bilateral Security Agreement with the U.S., and a similar deal with NATO, soon after coming to power. This move considerably reduced the friction between the two countries.
Even so, maintaining close ties with the U.S. is going to be a complex job given the conflicting nature of the unity government and also because the U.S. is overly occupied with the growing threat of the Islamic State in Iraq. History seems to be repeating itself. As it happened a decade ago, the attention of the U.S. has again been diverted to Iraq. Its focus on West Asia to destroy the IS translates into allocating more funds to train the anti-IS elements and reinforce the Iraqi security forces. The diplomatic and military engagement of the U.S. in West Asia means less time for diplomacy and providing financial resources to Afghanistan.
Another major challenge confronting the Afghan government is the revival of the Taliban movement and the reemergence of militants in some areas of Afghanistan. There has been a surge in deadly attacks on foreign troops as well as on the local law-enforcement agencies during the last six months, establishing beyond doubt that the various efforts to negotiate a peace deal with the Taliban have failed.
The increase in the frequency of Taliban attacks proves that their infrastructure in the country is thriving. While the Al Qaeda network may have been neutralized to some extent, the Taliban have only increased in numbers and strength. The fact that they are spread across the highly porous Durand Line does not help matters either. An announcement by the Pakistan-based Punjabi Taliban, declaring that they would fight in Afghanistan suggests that the Taliban supremo Mullah Omar has actually reversed the concept of strategic depth as today the Afghan Taliban have enough safe havens, support structures and human resources deep inside Pakistan.
The Afghan Army and the government, with two executives, have neither a united military might to fight the Taliban insurgency nor the financial and moral strength to face a challenge of this magnitude. They need U.S. assistance at every step of the way till the Taliban insurgency is completely mowed down.
The silver lining in the otherwise bleak Afghan landscape is the improvement in the economy as well as in human development indicators over the last decade. Today’s Afghanistan is far more developed than it has ever been when it comes to education, road networks, transmission lines, etc. It is picking up slowly but steadily.
The real challenge is to protect and consolidate the gains which have been made in the last few years. To do this, the new government needs strong financial and military support. What it needs to avoid is fragmentation on ethnic lines and clash of egos between the two men in Afghanistan who matter the most at the moment.