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Afghanistan’s political elite continues to jeopardize stability

Afghan presidential candidates Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani sign the Joint Declaration of the Electoral Teams in Kabul, Afghanistan in 2014
Afghan presidential candidates Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani sign the Joint Declaration of the Electoral Teams in Kabul, Afghanistan on 8 August 2014. Photo: Flickr / U.S. Department of State

Since 1979 conflict in Afghanistan has been largely an interplay between foreign meddling and inter-elite competition over resources, power, identity, and ideology.

These dynamics have continued unsparingly into 2017. While foreign meddling is hard to reduce in Afghanistan at this stage, internal power rivalry is not. Similar faults are repeated over and over, even at the country’s highest political echelons. This harms stability in the country, and even the region.


Power struggle between the President and CEO

This internal power struggle also directly affects the livelihood of the Afghan population, of which an estimated 63% is younger than 25. Through the country’s rich array of independent TV, radio and social media outlets, these youth–the future of the country–witness how the country’s stewards, President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Abdullah Abdullah, undermine each other’s authority.

Consequently, two and a half years after the National Unity Government’s (NUG) inception—a US-brokered power-sharing agreement completed after both Ghani and Abdullah claimed victory in the heavily contested September 2014 presidential election—Afghanistan continues to experience an ongoing political crisis.

There has been little actual agreement on power-sharing in practice so far. President Ghani and CEO Abdullah are still not able, or willing, to find common political ground on their respective roles and corresponding powers. They fail to place national interests above personal interests, and though their patriotism is certainly not in doubt, their discord jeopardizes Afghanistan’s fragile political stability. Amid a grave security and socioeconomic crisis, political instability is the last thing the country needs. 


Problems with the National Unity Government

The NUG has been beset by fragmentation tendencies and ineffectiveness right from the start. Many of the differences between the President Ghani and CEO Abdullah camps stem from ambiguity in the NUG power-sharing agreement document which has left space for divergent interpretations.

Finger pointing occurs daily, and the corruption of the former president Hamid Karzai’s administration has, largely, remained resilient.

The timing could not be worse, with the Afghan Government facing mounting socioeconomic challenges: rampant unemployment, poor human security conditions, a negligible and dormant formal economy, and a resistant illicit economy.  

Simultaneously, there is growing popular discontent with the NUG, erosion of its perceived legitimacy, and increasing ethnic tensions over the perceived lack of Hazara and Uzbek minorities in senior government posts. Ghani tends to favour fellow Pashtuns and Abdullah fellow Tajiks.

Political opposition from outside and inside the President Ghani and CEO Abdullah camps is growing, too. Former president Karzai and his associates are very active in many opposition groups, and the relationship between the executive and legislature branches of power is strained. While CEO Abdullah ‘loses face’ and support from his base over a lack of influence in the NUG, President Ghani faces increased opposition from his handpicked Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum who feels marginalized.

These tensions fuel political prejudice in Afghanistan’s security apparatus, which is already dealing with a resurgent Taliban and the threat of Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K) aspirations to revive a historic regional caliphate. Furthermore, as IS struggles in Syria, there is the prospect of thousands of IS fighters returning to Afghanistan.   

However, President Ghani and CEO Abdullah are not the only ones responsible for the political state of affairs: their dysfunctional bilateral relationship has deeper drivers. Arguably equally important is the role of their respective factions and their sub-national interests. Many of these individuals, while jockeying for power and monetary derivatives, have competing views on the ethnic power balance in the country and the nature of the NUG power sharing agreement.

The President Ghani faction accuses the Abdullah faction of trying to run a ‘shadow government’ and of misinterpreting the role of Afghanistan’s CEO. The faction loyal to CEO Abdullah charges President Ghani with centralizing power by overly micro-managing government affairs, marginalizing the Abdullah faction in key policy decisions, and sidelining Abdullah over the appointment of key officials.


Presidental elections in 2019

This dynamic will likely continue until the role of the CEO or an executive prime minister is constitutionalized, which is unlikely to happen in 201718.

Why is this unlikely? A constitutional Loya Jirga—a grand assembly of nationwide representatives—tasked with formalizing the position of the CEO into that of a constitutionally acknowledged executive prime minister was due to be completed by September 2016 according to the 2014 NUG agreement. Elections reform and parliamentary and district elections were also due to take place. Little progress has been made on any of these fronts.

According to the constitution and the agreement, the district elections will need to proceed before the Loya Jirga can convene (on the basis of a law in order to create a 'quorum'). Both fearing an unfavorable outcome, President Ghani and CEO Abdullah are in no particular rush to expedite these processes, which themselves are subject to deep-rooted ethno-religious factors. Instead, they are waiting for the 2019 presidential election to bring anticipated changes.

However, there is also pressure from the international community, without whose military and fiscal support Afghanistan would collapse. The international community, particularly the USA and the EU, have indicated that they strongly oppose NUG disintegration and are willing to pull the aid plug if either President Ghani or CEO Abdullah take further destabilizing measures.

Thus the NUG will stagger along until these 2019 presidential electionsand sacrifice two and a half more years of effective governance until then. In the meantime political turmoil will prevail, and if electoral reforms are left unchanged future polls will likely, again, induce commotion.

President Ghani, CEO Abdullah and a handful of the Afghan elite determine the country’s political stability and development. The country is in a deadlock of mutually reinforcing crises: breaking out of this deadlock will, mostly, depend on Afghanistan’s political establishment. It is time to unite.


Richard Ghiasy was an Associate Researcher in the SIPRI China and Global Security Programme.