Afghanistan at crossroads!  

The Afghan Independent Election Commission on Sunday declared Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai as the country’s new president. The announcement came hours after Ghani and his rival Abdullah Abdullah signed a power-sharing agreement in ending the election deadlock. Abdullah was widely believed to be far behind Ashraf in the official results. The final sticking point in the negotiations to form a unity government was Abdullah’s insistence that the official final vote tally not be released; Independent Election Commission obliged him.

Under the agreement, Abudullah or an aide of his is to become the chief executive, a post equal to that of prime minister in the new government. Under the terms of the unity deal, Ashraf Ghani will share power with chief executive. The two will share control over key institutions such as the Afghan army and other executive decision making entities. This weeks long election deadlock had damaged life for Afghans; people were worried about their future. Protracted electoral uncertainty, at times, seemed about to descend into political and ethnic violence; the resolution of the stalemate has been greeted with relief by the people of Afghanistan. The inauguration of the new government will take place at the end of the month, possibly on Sept 29.

Pakistan has supported the peaceful democratic transition in Afghanistan, Foreign office spokes person said, “We regard the signing of this agreement as a positive development. This outcome has been possible due to the wise and sagacious leadership of Dr. Ashraf Ghani and Dr. Abdullah Abdullah”. “A difficult and challenged unity structure is still preferable to conflict between these two groups,” said a US official in Kabul. “Having them both working together within the government and direct their energies toward positive reform is again preferable to some of the alternatives”, he added. The United Nations Security Council has also welcomed the conclusion of the presidential election process in Afghanistan and agreement on formation of a national unity government. Council members emphasised the importance of all parties “working within the framework of the government of national unity to achieve a unified, peaceful and prosperous future for Afghanistan,” said a press statement.

As America struggles to find ways and means to mobilize additional blood and treasure to fuel and propel another ‘war of decades’ in Iraq to militarily engage the Islamic State, Afghan government has sounded a distress alarm that it is broke. It has formally requested the US for an immediate $537 million bailout. President-designate Mr. Ashraf Ghani has said that there is a budgetary shortage of more than $900 million, in part, because doubts about the formation of new government have prompted a collapse in tax and customs collections. With American focus on Islamic State fighters across Iraq and Syria, the Taliban may not seem so pressing a threat to Americans these days. Nevertheless, Taliban continue to be a potent force-in-being.

Be that as it may, without an immediate rescue, Afghan government won’t be able to pay its employees. Afghanistan’s 350,000 strong security forces are paid for by the America led coalition; Afghan government only provides them daily meals. An oft quoted military adage has it that “Army marches on its stomach”. And if the soldiers don’t eat, they create serious problems; they may even go on rampage. Therefore, without the bailout, Afghan government will have a difficult time keeping terrorists out of Afghanistan. Taliban are increasing pressure around Kabul, where they killed two American troops outside the US embassy in a suicide bombing on September 16. Another indicator of economic difficulties is that power supply to some of the cities is being scaled down due to lack of funding to sustain capacity level generation.

According to some analysts, Americans have built a government in Afghanistan that it can’t sustain. So far, Afghanistan’s reconstruction has received nearly $104 billion dollars over the last 13 years, and the US is likely to invest at least $5-8 billion a year, once foreign troops leave the country. Afghan government has a heavy dependence on foreign aid. Over 60 percent of its GDP is mobilized through foreign donors; major chunk is underwritten by the United States.

It will be a catastrophe for Afghanistan, if the deal falls apart at implementation stage. “We are able to work together pragmatically,” Ghani said.  Two sides have agreed on a formula for a new government position of “chief executive officer, who will be responsible for implementing policies and will chair council of ministers. The CEO would report to the president and his cabinet; and would also be engaged as a participant in decision making processes.  At least theoretically, that sounds like a viable power-sharing formula. However devil lies in details and implementation. Given the high stakes, the two men ought to bury the hatchet and maintain good working relationship.

Ashraf Ghani has acknowledged that running the next government is not going to be an easy task. The Taliban are on the offensive, winter is coming and uncertainty over the future has left the Kabul government paralyzed and bankrupt. President Karzai has recently said that the United States needed to work with other countries that also had an interest in the political deal. “Afghanistan must not be a ground for competition between countries … It is therefore important that the US should seek an environment of common understanding with other countries,” he said. His spokesman Aimal Faizi elaborated that President wanted the US to engage regional powers including neighbouring Iran.

Both Ashraf and Abdullah have fallen victim to Afghanistan’s ethnic and geographic fault lines. Ashraf is a Pashtun who won strong support in the country’s east and south. Abdullah has the backing of northern Afghanistan’s Tajik and Hazara communities. Hopefully, now they would prefer to put behind these biases and work for the good of all Afghans.

The silver lining is that both Ghani and Abdullah have unanimity on strategic matters; both support signing of Bilateral Security Agreement with the US and a Status of Forces Agreement with the NATO. These agreements would allow the US led military trainers and counterterrorism forces to remain in the country after this year. Without such agreements, all foreign troops are likely to be pulled out by the end of this year; and the flow of foreign aid and support would halt. However, at the peoples’ level, there is a strong opposition to these agreements; these are thought to be instruments for perpetuating foreign occupation of Afghanistan. Now one of Ghani’s first acts would be to sign these agreements.

Peace and stability in Pakistan is intricately linked to what happens in Afghanistan. Therefore, during these trying times, Pakistan looks-up to Afghan leadership to demonstrate pragmatism and lead the Afghan people towards a happy and prosperous future.

A variant of this article was carried by The nation on September 22, 2014

Disclaimer: Views expressed are of the writer and are no necessarily reflective of IPRI policy.

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About the Author

Khalid Iqbal
Air Commodore (R) Khalid Iqbal is Consultant Policy & and Strategic Response at IPRI. He is on the panel of experts for Spearhead Research and Centre for Pakistan and Gulf Studies. He is a member board of advisers of Opinion Maker and member National Academic Council, Institute of Policy Studies. He is on the visiting faculty of Quaid-i- Azam University, Islamabad. He is a former Assistant Chief of Air Staff, Pakistan Air Force.

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