Newly elected Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, a technocrat with broad Western support who promised to bring his troubled country into the 21st century, has something in his government he hadn’t counted on: a shadow.
Thanks to a power-sharing agreement that the United States helped to push on Ghani, the president has a prime minister, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, a former finance minister and top Northern Alliance official who had all but threatened civil war if he was not given a place at the head of the government along with Ghani. Abdullah got his wish, but longtime observers say the “sharing” may have created the conditions for a civil war anyway.
“I think forcing the two to share power is a recipe for disaster,” said Otilie English who worked on and off in Kabul throughout the decade after 9/11, mostly on government teaching contracts. Before 9/11 she did human rights lobbying, and worked to promote the cause of the Northern Alliance against the Taliban in Washington. She has no illusions that Afghanistan has turned a corner since.
“I really think the country is evolving back to conditions prior to the civil war in the 90’s in which Kabul was destroyed.”
A return to the 1990s would be the worst-case scenario, but it is just as likely that the central government will be a conflicting mess of tribalism, ethnic competition, and corruption—in other words, it will be no different than it is today. The first indication that things are going south are that it’s been a month since the so-called united government was formed, yet there is no government because the two sides cannot agree on who will be running the ministries.
“Power-sharing agreements can only succeed when there is political order, backed by internal security arrangement and an effective state-building mechanism,” said human rights activist Nemat Sadat.
“Unfortunately, in Afghanistan, with the escalation of attacks in Kabul and throughout Afghanistan occurring since the inauguration and the inability to decide new ministers who can create an effective state-building mechanism, and the U.S. and allied countries running for the exits, you have a power vacuum.”
Tony Cordesman, senior national security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), points out that on every measurable front, Afghanistan is descending into crisis. “They [the metrics] are truly dismal,” he said, from economic growth and poverty, to security and governance. CSIS has just issued two reports with reams of data to prove his point.
“Just remember—and this often gets lost—Afghanistan is a country that regardless of who is elected, would have truly major governance problems. It is one of the worst governed countries in the world.”
Afghanistan’s recent open election—the country’s first without Hamid Karzai, the U.S.-installed leader who was constitutionally mandated to step down after two terms—was supposed to help turn the governance problem around.
TAC wrote about the elections this past summer, when Ghani and Abdullah went into a run-off after all of the eight competing candidates failed to get 50 percent of the vote in the April elections. Abdullah led April’s voting with 44 percent, compared to Ghani’s 31 percent. By July’s election, however, things had turned ugly as it was announced that Ghani was leading Abdullah 56 percent to 43 percent.
In one respect, the shift in numbers was not surprising—in American terms, think of it like an eight-way race in which six candidates are Republicans and two are Democrat. One candidate from each party emerges from the first round, and then the Republican benefits by consolidating the others’ votes in the two-way run-off. Ghani and five other candidates were all ethnic Pashtuns, while Abdullah and is Tajik and Pashtun but hails from the Northern Alliance, which was a Tajik resistance movement.
Nonetheless, Abdullah would not accept the results, charging widespread fraud. When he made the same accusations four years before against Karzai, it turned out that he was right. But this time, the situation was more complicated, observers said, and any fraud like ballot stuffing could turn out to have been committed on both sides. Either way, Abdullah threatened to withdraw support from the government if audits were not done. “We would rather be torn into pieces than accept this fraud. We reject these results … and justice will prevail,” he told a crowd of restive supporters in July.
A deep audit of more than a million votes was initiated by the International Election Commission, and in September Ghani was declared the winner. But mysteriously, we do not know by how much—the final tallies were never released. Almost immediately, Ghani and Abdullah signed a power-sharing agreement, promoted by Secretary of State John Kerry, which gives Ghani the presidency but leaves both men essentially in charge, with Abdullah serving as CEO with all the duties of prime minister. (For a deeper dive into the details, see the Afghan Analysts Network’s take.)
“Abdullah stamped his feet, and blustered and basically threatened and that’s why our government gave in—Kerry should have never went near this because it’s not going to work,” said English.
Nevertheless, U.S. officials, like senior presidential advisor John Podesta, called the pact and the subsequent joint-signing of the security agreement keeping upwards of 10,000 American troops in the country, a “turning of the page” in regards to U.S.-Afghan relations.
According to Martine van Bijlert at AAN, “Ghani and Abdullah have, so far, taken great pains to present the image of a united leadership,” going to Brussels and London in December to convince the international community to continue aid and security partnerships, but the cracks are already showing. Several deadlines to fill the cabinet have already been missed. Meanwhile, the old Karzai cabinet was dismissed from duty in November.
The deal itself might be to blame, as it calls for a perfect split in the appointment of the 25 ministries, each man getting half, but is filled with ambiguities about how to arrive at that split. AAN’s Bijlert writes that while the two have agreed to split up the ministries, they are not yet fully agreed on who gets which posts to fill. And according to AAN, the exact terms of Abdullah’s authority were not made clear in the original agreement, creating another sticking point. As of Friday none of the ministers have been appointed, which leaves the most critical posts like interior, finance, and defense in limbo.
In a town in which these jobs have usually been doled out for patronage and become cash cows for officials’ friends and family, this is a tricky business. Ghani has promised to stop the era of patronage and move toward meritocracy, but that goal seems farther away now as Afghanistan slips into the abyss of poverty and insecurity.
As Sadat tells TAC:
The main conundrum in this power-sharing agreement is that under the terms signed by Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah and brokered by the United States, it requires “parity” to deciding leadership positions in ministries relating to security and economy and that the two sides will be “equally represented at the leadership level.”
This restricts Ghani’s executive powers and his dream about establishing a “merit-based” mechanism (or meritocratic or meritocracy if you will), whereby appointment of officials are made based on who is the most qualified to lead that position.
English tells TAC that to make it even worse, the nepotism and patronage throughout the ministries is ethnic-based, with Tajiks filling some ministries, Pashtuns others. This is the way it has always been and complicates the way forward. “Abdullah will demand certain key ministries and Ghani won’t give them up, and all the ministries are ethnically divided—that’s just how it is done.”
David Isby, an Afghan expert and author of Afghanistan: Graveyard of Empires: A New History of the Borderland, adds that appointing ministries in the past has always been about favors and payback. Ghani has promised to tackle this corruption—most recently in his London speech—but therein lies the conundrum. “That means he is going to have to something about a system that is about mainly dividing the goodies rather than doing a job,” he tells TAC.
Isby says the central government is actually less important than setting the 34 provincial governments on a straight course, and to start that process the two new “co-leaders” had to go to their international donors with hat in hand first, even if it meant missing the deadlines for establishing the cabinet. “That’s where their money is, you know—they had to make that priority,” said Isby. However, he concedes that the continuing violence, including a series of suicide attacks in Kabul over the last month, combined with government uncertainty, “discourages investment.”
Bijlert takes that point one step further, suggesting the donor community is unsettled by the delay in the cabinet.
“The introduction of new faces ahead of the (donor) conference would have been a tangible sign of progress easily understood at home and in donor capitals. It would have been particularly welcome given the contentious and drawn-out election, the lingering uneasiness about whether a dual-headed government will actually work and the morphing of the ISAF mission into the new Mission Resolute Support,” she wrote, noting the new assistance role for the few international troops left behind.
The inauguration of the new government initially led to a sense of optimism among many Afghans. This has been dampened as time passed, particularly with still no ministers appointed who could have started effecting the promised changes. What remains is a mix of hope and disappointment, as the new government, on the one hand, continues to present a sense of dynamism, albeit largely symbolically, and on the other hand, remains bogged down in its own complications.
CSIS’s Cordesman points out that the instability on all levels will indeed create a security vacuum for both the country and the region, given the strength of the Pakistani Taliban next door. He in part blames the American government for letting the corruption and the persistent problems in the Afghan military get so bad without coming to terms with them sooner and more openly.
The power-sharing agreement was just an attempt at a Band-Aid in order to keep all the powerbrokers happy, but the country is bleeding through. “And at this point,” he said, “no one can predict the outcome.”
Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor. Follow her on Twitter.