Tightrope Walk for the New Afghan Leader

International community’s response to Afghanistan’s unity government deal seems to be over-optimistic. It’s a curt reminder of political wheeling and dealing in a nascent democracy that remains mired in primitive tribalism and warlordism.

Posted on 09/28/14
By S. Mudassir Ali Shah | Via Dawn
Some Afghans are asking why elections were held if such a deal was to be struck.  (Photo by  Canada in Afghanistan, Creative Commons License)
Some Afghans are asking why elections were held if such a political deal was to be struck. (Photo by Canada in Afghanistan, Creative Commons License)

The unity government deal between the combative Afghan presidential runners has evoked an over-optimistic response from influential world capitals. But the accord, however you phrase it, is a curt reminder of political wheeling and dealing in a nascent democracy that remains mired in primitive tribalism and warlordism.


Deal vs democracy: The accord and the ensuing poll results may have mitigated political uncertainty in the immediate term, but disquieting questions about the incoming government’s credibility remain. As part of the hazy pact, the election commission pointedly avoided releasing the final tallies to tamp down ethnic tensions.


Under the deal, which has literally rendered the two election rounds meaningless, Abdullah has become chief executive officer, a position created to address his allegation of industrial-scale rigging. His legitimacy will stem from constitutional amendments, making him as powerful as the president.


Mismatch of perceptions: Ghani and Abdullah have a conspicuous mismatch of perceptions on key questions. At the hustings, the former came across as a statesman with a vision for rebuilding Afghanistan’s war-ravaged economy, introducing a culture of merit and national reconciliation. Conversely, Abdullah sounded like a pugnacious political maverick caught in a time warp. He harped on his close association with Ahmad Shah Massoud, a hero to Tajiks but the proverbial villain of the piece to Pakhtuns. He also touted plans for bringing together all jihadi leaders on a single platform and giving them a say in the new administration.


His acolytes have repeatedly warned of stor­ming the Presidential Palace, forming a parallel government and launching ‘Orange’ and ‘Green’ movements before going in for civil disobedience in a country that needs to be at peace with itself. How well the political foes could work together remains in doubt. Their mistrust is too deep-seated to go away in the near future, posing an impediment to good governance.


Abdullah called off his boycott of the election panel and embraced the UN-monitored vote audit in return for cushy government posts. Albeit reluctantly, he accepted the poll result which, according to European observers, suggested large-scale fraud.


Talks with Taliban: In addition to dealing with inordinate demands from an intransigent coalition partner, Ghani will have to contend with several intractable challenges, including reconciliation with the insurgents, who have slammed the new government as a US puppet. The militants have vowed to continue fighting against those whom they’ve branded as Western lackeys foisted upon the Afghan nation.


Important regional powers like China and Russia want the Afghans to combat the Taliban insurgency on their own, but Kabul apparently lacks the will either to negotiate with the rebels from a position of strength or launch a decisive crackdown on them. This position is bound to make the peace parleys an exercise in futility.


Islamabad can indubitably play a crucial role in pushing the reconciliation campaign, but Kabul’s incessant Pakistan-bashing is enough to dampen this prospect. Addition­ally, the Taliban assert their independence as a movement determined to drive “foreign invaders” from Afghanistan. While seeking to enforce Sharia, they do not want to be perceived as a tool in the hands of a particular nation.


Drug commerce: Combating the illicit drug commerce is another area where the Ghani administration will remain reliant on international assistance. Just like the ruthless insurgency, the Taliban also seem to be winning the war on drugs in Afghanistan, which accounts for 75pc of the world’s heroin. It produced a record poppy crop despite America’s $7 billion counternarcotics effort. As their pene­­tration of the drug market is expan­ding, the Taliban’s control of the illegal trade is likely to in­­crease with the pullout of Nato forces. The fighters’ annual windfall from the illicit trade is estimated at $125 million.


Security pacts: Evolving a national consensus on the stay of foreign troops beyond 2014 is compulsory, but appears elusive, at least at this point in time. Ghani, aware of Kabul’s financial constraints, is expected to sign a bilateral security agreement with the US and a status of forces agreement with Nato. This has to be done to ensure salaries of civil servants, teachers, soldiers and policemen are bankrolled regularly. To his discomfort, many Afghan leaders have voiced their aversion to the continued presence of foreign soldiers, blamed for civilian killings and nighttime raids.


Warlordism: The inclusion of people like Rashid Dostum in the new government also speaks volumes for the sway warlords still hold in Afghanistan. Accused of war crimes and trampling on women’s rights, his role in governance cannot be justified in any democratic dispensation.


Getting to grips with all these challenges is going to be a tightrope walk for Ghani.


The writer is a senior Pakistani journalist currently based in Kabul.

This article first appeared in Dawn, a leading daily of Pakistan. Click here to go to the original.

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