by Kambaiz Rafi
In a bid to outmaneuver his opponent, Ashraf Ghani, the head of the Unity Government of Afghanistan made sure to publicize the written confirmation of the presidential election results. The back channel agreement between Ghani and his opponent, Abdullah Abdullah, leading to the creation of the Unity Government, called for election results to remain unannounced. Ghani’s publication of the IEC certificate given to him a day after the agreement was signed goes against his promise to his CEO. Abdullah reacted and Quibbles between the two continued right until the new president’s inauguration ceremony.
The Unity Government patched together by UNAMA and the U.S. embassy in Kabul puts the country on an uncertain path. Tensions between Abdullah and Ghani are likely to spill over into their policies dealing with the country’s more immediate problems. The most dire and urgent problem is declining security and a rise in the number of insurgent attacks following the drawdown of the Coalition Forces. The Taliban, no doubt inspired by the recent achievements of fellow terrorist group ISIL, has found new ideological and tactical inspiration. Recently, they carried out an attack and killed over 100 civilians in Ghazni province, employing methods very similar to those of ISIL.
One of the primary disagreements between Ghani and Abdullah will be the modalities of the peace process with the Taliban. While Abdullah favors a combination of coercive measures and dialogue and decries lenient policies toward the insurgents despite the rise in their criminal activities, Ghani will most likely rely on peace talks, much in line with his predecessor Karzai. He has, in the past, facilitated the release of hundreds of Taliban prisoners while overseeing the transfer of detention facilities from Coalition Forces to the Afghan government. During a campaign speech in Kandahar, Ghani boasted that he had upheld his promise to release Taliban prisoners from Bagram Detention Center, adding, “I will release them again!”
This issue gains further importance when placed within Afghanistan’s ethnic power dynamics. Taliban are predominantly Pashtun and their release by successive presidents, Hamed Karzai and now Ghani, is seen by other ethnic groups as favoritism toward fellow Pashtuns. Ghani’s promise to release more Taliban prisoners will not remain unnoticed by the disenfranchised ordinary people and the remnants of the forces that were battling against the Taliban more than a decade ago. During the last decade, Karzai administration was able to keep outrage against the release of Taliban militants at the margins. Now, those raising this opposition are set to occupy half of the new administration in Kabul. In other words, regarding one of the most important issues facing Afghanistan, the new government will be divided along disparate lines.
Moreover, Ghani appears highly confident in his ability to bring prosperity to the Afghan people within his term limit. If he fails, he has the Unity Government to blame as an obstacle to realize his plans. In a recent interview with BBC’s John Simpson, he declared that he can bring down Afghanistan’s ranking by 100 points in Transparency International’s index within five years. Ghani also presented a host of other achievable goals, many of them wildly ambitious. If, a few years down the line, Ghani blames the Unity Government for his failure to achieve his plans, Abdullah’s supporters will lose trust in any political compromise of the same kind. Abdullah might also blame Ghani for a likely decline in security due to his peacemaking approach with the Taliban.
The policy steps that led to the recent stalemate are known to almost anyone interested in the country’s politics. Karzai’s decision to remove non-afghan members from the independent election commission (IEC) was one, which reduced international oversight over the election process to a large extent. Adullah has pledged to bring reforms in the IEC and a clause in the Unity Government agreement is dedicated to this issue. Disagreements on how to reform the IEC can become a cause for further tensions.
Nonetheless, it is less likely that the new administration will scatter and fail completely due to these differences. However, the major problems because of this Unity Government are likely to emerge in future elections and as a direct consequence of the recent US-brokered power-sharing deal. A lot of trust was put on the line in reaching this political agreement. A large part of the population in Northern and Central regions of the country believe they have been betrayed and denied their rightful place in government despite their observance of democratic principles. They are silent today only because it was largely understood that a power-sharing agreement between Abdullah and Ghani was inevitable—due to the growing concern that the ongoing political gridlock might plunge the country into uncertainty. Allegations of vote rigging in future elections in the eastern and southern parts of the country can push outraged crowds of Tajik and Hazara protestors toward violent means to express their frustration. If they pursue non-peaceful measures to address their grievances, Pashtuns will do the same and the existing progresses in the country may not outlive such a predicament. The international community and the U.S. will be further drawn into the country due to such a calamity.
For the most part, political affiliations in Afghanistan boil down to ethnicity. What is missing in Afghanistan, despite the public display of solidarity among the people is a genuine spirit of unity. This has its roots in 20th century history and successive Afghan rulers and governments who have pursued outright subjugation of some ethnic groups. Pashtuns are seen as utilizing any means to continue their traditional position of political dominance and this makes Tajiks and Hazaras worry about possible vote rigging in the future elections in a similar vein to the recent one. These ethnicities have not waited for democracy and fair voter-based political participation for decades only to see it violated in this way.
The roots of the current compromise go back to the Bonn Conference in 2001 where Hamed Karzai, an ethnic Pashtun from Southern Kandahar province, was chosen as the president despite his loss to an ethnic Uzbek in an election held among the members of the conference. It was argued that Afghanistan has been traditionally ruled by Pashtuns with brief intervals, and it shouldn’t change overnight—not by the United States and certainly not when the Pashtun-dominated Taliban militants were forced out of Kabul by the predominantly Tajik Northern Alliance forces. The move would have been seen as the U.S. taking sides in the power struggle among the ethnic groups. In the end, traditions were left untouched and the country went through thirteen years of rule under Hamid Karzai. This political culture continues to reign and is largely responsible for the agreement that was reached between Abdullah and Ghani. Instead of legitimizing democratic votes or preventing mass fraud, a quick fix was chosen to dissuade ethnic sensitivities. This culture, as the famous Persian saying goes, is the misplaced brick upon which a “tilted wall” has been built. It can collapse at any time.
Afghanistan’s delicate democracy can only be saved if trust is restored in the electoral bodies and the participants genuinely believe that their votes will count, a daunting challenge given the recent standoff that bred widespread distrust. A decisive role by the international community, and more importantly the United States, is crucial to bring back confidence in democratic institutions in this country. The longstanding culture of favoritism should be abandoned, and the voters who at times sacrifice life and limb for casting their votes should be allowed to democratically choose who they want to see as their president. Only then can the United States and the international community exit the country for good, leaving behind a stable and functioning democracy.