It seems that Afghanistan’s problems aren’t going to end anytime soon. At a time, when the country is slowly yet steadily slipping into the hands of Taliban and the influence of already fragile Unity Government is waning, the top political leadership of the country has resorted to political wrangling. The cleavages in the unity government became more than evident when the country’s Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah threatened to withdraw his support for the government if President Ashraf Ghani does not fulfil his demands. Perhaps this is his aspiration to become country’s president as all that has come just weeks before a US-brokered power-sharing agreement between the two men is due to expire.
There were growing threats of Afghanistan’s falling into a political abyss when after the 2014 Presidential elections, both candidates claimed victory. To outside observers, the election was flawed and presence of factors like fraud and irregularities led to a contested result. There remained a stalemate on the issue which was later resolved after US Secretary of State John Kerry stepped in and brokered a compromise power-sharing agreement between the two rivals and they both pledged to reform the country’s electoral system. This deal resulted in a unity government of the two Afghan leaders, in which Abdullah reluctantly accepted the secondary role.
According to the deal, the National Unity Government would have to implement a number of electoral and political reforms by September 2016, including organising parliamentary elections and conveying the constitutional Loya Jirga, the grand assembly. However, no meaningful steps have been taken to honour those promises.
Two years later, the country’s two top leaders remain deadlocked over the electoral reforms, stalling the already overdue parliamentarian elections and raising worries over the next presidential contest in 2019.
On April 9, in the midst of worries about a shock in September when the NUG agreement would expire, US Secretary of State John Kerry visited Kabul to shore up support for the NUG, rejecting the notion that it is valid only for two years.
This led to the creation of resentment in Abdullah and his supporters and they have been simmering over all these months. Abdullah’s own frustration boiled over publicly when he recently claimed that Ghani was not fit to be the president. Abdullah’s allies seem standing firm on their demands as they are seeking sweeping reforms and want Ghani to stop “micro-managing” the government and “consolidating personal power.” They accuse him of sidelining his electoral rival Abdullah Abdullah, favouring Ghilzai Pashtuns in by using the means of patronage and charm-offensive of the West.
But, a look at the past two years of Afghanistan’s political developments reveals that since taking office, President Ghani has issued two presidential decrees to introduce electoral reforms. Both have been rejected by the legislative branch, and some analysts opine that is largely due to supporters of Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, Ghani’s rival, who remain opposed to the changes. However, there are reports in Afghan media that the president’s office is crafting a third decree, and may try to bypass the parliament with an executive decree under article 79 of the Afghanistan’s Constitution while the parliament is in its summer recess. The constitution allows the executive branch to bypass the legislative branch when the parliament is in recess and at times of emergency. Although the president has the legal ability to push through the reforms via executive decree, yet doing so could lead to even more political gridlock.
It is important to mention here that President Ghani took charge at a time when the US was preparing to pull out its troops from Afghanistan and at that time it was not possible for them to allow any kind of destabilisation in the political order they had installed. Hence Ghani’s assuming power was crucial in arranging a continued foreign troop presence beyond NATO’s combat mandate.
But, due to intrinsic antagonism between the two leaders, as many experts had predicted, the unity government never functioned smoothly, with the two leaders disagreeing on a number of issues. Their relationship has been tense with each vetoing the other’s Cabinet choices. Delays in appointments became excuses for non-compliance with the terms of the NUG agreement.
But, is it prudent on the part of both the men to involve into political wrangling at a time when their country is battling the Taliban and their insurgency — now in its 15th year — intensifying in recent months. At present, the military is in the midst of a major offensive, with US back-up, against the Islamic State group in the eastern province of Nangarhar. Despite the death of their leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour and coming of Mullah Haibatullah — relatively less inclined to fighting — at the top, Taliban have gained strength, and President Ghani has not succeeded in convincing them to come to the negotiating table.
Public dissatisfaction is also soaring as a nationwide survey published by The Asia Foundation in November last year showed that optimism among the Afghan population about the future of their country had declined to the lowest point in a decade — after steadily rising through 2014. The opinion poll cited insecurity, unemployment and corruption as the main reasons behind the grim outlook. On the other hand, the Ghani-led government failed to create jobs and attract investment that could kick-start the moribund economy. Ghani has also been forced to deal with potentially destabilizing accusations of discrimination from the minority Hazaras, a largely impoverished Shiite community.
Hence, there remains no doubt that the growing political crisis within the Afghan National Unity Government is compounding the ongoing security and economic crises in the country. Ordinary people are paying the ultimate price in all of this. And, Afghans are leaving the country. They are the second largest group by nationality to have fled to Europe — surpassed only by people fleeing Syria. Nearly 180,000 Afghans left the country in 2015.
While the NUG inherited many of these problems from President Karzai’s administration, it has, nevertheless, done little to improve the situation. The best way forward for the Afghanistan’s Unity Government at present is that it should invest its political capital in bringing long-overdue electoral reforms and constitutional amendments to win Afghan hearts. The government must perform to win back dwindling public support. The Afghan constitution and the political agreement that gave birth to the Afghan National Unity Government provide a clear roadmap for the way forward. Washington should also play its role as the creator of NUG and must resist the temptation for personalisation of its challenges and strategies. They need to make certain that the government does everything possible to get unified and to deliver to the people of Afghanistan. And for this both sides should also see the larger interest of the country rather than their personal aspirations.
Afghanistan does not need a saviour or an indispensable fatherly figure. Only legitimate, effective and sustainable politics can untangle the country from its multitude of challenges.