New Afghan government faces substantial obstacles

Stabilizing the country will require a series of compromises from all stakeholders

November 22, 2014 2:00AM ET
Afghanistan’s Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, left, and President Ashraf Ghani in Kabul in September 2014. Their unity government will need to make more compromises to achieve enduring stability.
Shah Marai / AFP / Getty Images

As U.S. and NATO begin the final drawdown of troops from Afghanistan, Afghans remain hopeful that their government can deliver stability. There are some signs that Afghanistan is on the right track. Afghan security forces are in control of much of the land, and new popular President Ashraf Ghani is touting his vision to transform the country. The national unity government, which ended months of political stalemate between Ghani and his main challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, was backed by most of the Kabul political establishment and the country’s major ethnic groups. But to achieve enduring stability, Afghan political actors will be called on to make more compromises along the way.

Ghani’s reform agenda

Ghani has vowed to implement an ambitious reform program and lead Afghanistan through a “decade of transformation.” He has emphasized combating corruption within all branches of the state bureaucracy and to make Afghan political institutions work according to the rules instead of relations and patronage politics. He has laudable plans for promoting meritocracy, strengthening the rule of law, attracting investors and growing the economy. However, political and security realities will likely slow down progress on much of this agenda. The new government in Kabul and its international backers need to master patience and the art of compromise to implement these ambitious reforms.

Still, there are ample reasons for skepticism. For one, much of the alienation from the state in recent years has been based on the popular perception that a small elite of former mujahedeen commanders and a few returned émigrés used all organs of government to enrich themselves rather than serving citizens. To undertake a thorough purge — a process bound to alienate some elites — Ghani will need to maintain consensus within the national unity government. That is no small challenge.

In the economic domain, plans for Chinese-funded mining of Afghanistan’s mineral wealth will remain on hold until Kabul succeeds in reining in the insurgency and delivering security and stability. Ghani is painfully aware that insecurity in his native Logar province thwarted the first big Chinese attempt to invest in Afghanistan’s Misaynak copper mines. But China expects to see improved security before it delivers on the promises of investment. Toward that end, the Chinese government has offered to broker a truce between Kabul, the Taliban and Pakistan.

The new government has also promised constitutional reform. In the deal that ended months of stalemate between Ghani and Abdullah, both camps agreed in principle to overhaul the structure of government and initiate a process of reviewing and amending the constitution. The rival teams have already worked on developing the role for a chief executive, essentially a prime minister, to whom the president delegates some of the responsibilities of running the government. But the upcoming constitutional debate will be wider-ranging and will have to address the relations between the parliament and the executive as well as Kabul’s relations with the provinces.

Rebuilding Afghanistan is going to require a series of compromises. No actor is powerful enough to impose his vision on the country without accommodations.

Pashtun politicians have traditionally favored centralized governing structures. Ghani, however, has shown interest in some elements of decentralization such as increasing provincial control of revenue. Some of the northern political figures in the unity government hope to win agreement for elected officials in the provinces to gain real control over local governance. Building a majority, let alone a consensus, for any package of constitutional amendments will be another political challenge for Ghani. And the debate is likely to provide Islamists with an opportunity to propose rolling back objectionable, Western-influenced provisions in the existing constitution. A constitutional convention at a time when armed insurgency threatens the survival of the whole constitutional order might seem a luxury. However, its proponents, such as Afghanistan National Front representative Faizullah Zaki, insist the insurgency strengthens the case for decentralization. Most of the violence occurs in southern and eastern parts of the country, and decentralization proponents say their scheme would give the necessary flexibility for dealing with the insurgency by allowing provinces to run their own affairs.

Taliban optimism

Meanwhile, the Taliban leadership appears confident of victory on the basis of its reading of current trends. With the U.S. and NATO withdrawal, the Taliban are boasting about defeating a coalition of 40 countries. They know that the end of NATO combat operations will tip the military balance in their favor and are banking on the Afghan security forces being hampered by low morale and firepower. Furthermore, Taliban hard-liners contend Ghani’s security pact with the U.S. proves that supporters of the unity government are Western lackeys just like Kabul’s previous regime. The militants expect Ghani’s administration to lapse into infighting, leaving the Taliban to sweep the board in the months ahead, perhaps progressing quickly to take Kabul, especially if they succeed in triggering mass defections from the security forces.

However, the Taliban’s view is much too rosy. For one, they may have proved the ability to sustain the fight, but it is unrealistic to claim that they are on the verge of final victory. Apart from some victories in Helmand province earlier this year, the Taliban had only relatively modest gains from their campaign in 2014. By betting on Kabul’s collapse, the Taliban risks missing a peace deal that Ghani and Abdullah appeared prepared to offer them. If the Taliban reject negotiations and opt to fight on against the new government, they may find themselves trapped in a protracted and localized conflict that they cannot control.

The Taliban have long presented themselves as a national movement, focused exclusively on ending Western influence in Afghanistan and implementing Sharia in the country. But this is not the whole story. Part of the insurgency is already wedded to the idea of permanent jihad and rolling back Western influence throughout the Muslim world rather than merely pursuing political ends in Afghanistan. Inspired by the successes of groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, Taliban commanders may opt to be part of the grand struggle across the Muslim world. This would entail rejecting the Taliban’s Afghanistan-oriented politics. Thus maintaining the fight could eventually render the Taliban leadership irrelevant.

Ultimately, rebuilding Afghanistan is going to require a series of compromises. No actor is powerful enough to impose his vision on the country without accommodating opponents and recruiting allies. The U.S. learned this lesson but not before shedding a trillion dollars on an unwinnable counterinsurgency campaign. By declaring their intent to fight another puppet regime and Western ideas rather than just Western troops, the Taliban do not appear to have learned the importance of compromise just yet.

While Ghani enjoys popular support for rule-based institutions and cleaning up government, he may have to be selective about which fights he wants to pick when his reforms meet resistance. Overall, anyone hoping to win support for constitutional amendments will be hawking compromises among deeply divided camps. Afghan popular discourse talks about the need for strong leadership. But wise leadership and compromise are more likely to deliver durable peace, stability and reform.

Michael Semple is a visiting research professor at the Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation and Social Justice at Queen’s University in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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