Afghan Political Impasse Ends
AS many Afghanistan watchers had predicted from the outset, a power sharing deal between Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, the contenders for the presidency was announced with much fanfare on September 22. Under the deal, Ghani has duly been sworn in as president of the country. Only a week before, Abdullah was threatening that he and his supporters would not recognise the results or recognise Ghani as the democratically elected president, even after the votes were audited by the Afghan Electoral Commission under international supervision.
The audit, according to the observer group from the European Union (EU) was not completely successful in separating the fraudulent ballots from the valid one. The 500 member observer group from the EU in its report stated that the audit was conducted in an atmosphere of “high political tension” and that this had contributed to “an imperfect effort to separate fraudulent votes from clean votes”. It is however common knowledge among Afghans that both sides indulged in massive ballot rigging. Ghani was ultimately named as the winner but the Election Commission under pressure from Abdullah and arm twisting from the Americans, did not initially announce the margin of victory for Ghani. But a day before his swearing-in-ceremony, the Election Commission duly certified him as the winner with 55 percent of the votes polled.
The Obama administration also got the rival presidential candidates embroiled in an unseemly political tussle to announce from the same platform that they will be cohabiting politically by forming a “government of national unity”. Even as arrangements were being made for the swearing-in-ceremony, Abdullah once again threatened to walk out of the political arrangement that was so carefully worked out by the Obama administration. His camp was upset by the Election Commission’s decision to release the voting figures and the apparent refusal of the president elect to equally share power with the opposition. The newly elected first vice president, the Uzbek warlord, Rashid Dostam’s supporters forcibly vacated the offices that had been occupied by Abdullah’s men in anticipation of their leader occupying the number two slot in the new government. In the end, Abdullah duly showed up for the presidential inauguration and took the oath of Chief Executive Officer (CEO) a new post specifically created to placate the opposition and keep the anti Taliban forces united.
Ghani has reasons to be unhappy with the turn of events. He has been virtually forced to share power with the defeated candidate with Abdullah being a de facto prime minister. Under the terms of the power sharing agreement, brokered behind the scenes by the US State Department, the CEO will have substantial powers. The Afghan Constitution, framed under American guidance, gives the president very strong executive powers. Ghani has said that he intends to rule with a firm hand.
James Dobbins, till recently the US Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, had openly recommended the formation of a coalition government on the basis of “patronage allocation and power sharing”. The agreement hammered out by the Americans states that the CEO will remain subservient to the president but given the recent history of personal animosity between the two sides and as Abdullah still believes that the elections were stolen from him, the new government could face an identity crisis. Abdullah had accused Ghani’s campaign team of indulging in “industrial scale fraud” during the second round of elections. Abdullah wants the ministers in the new cabinet to report to the CEO while Ghani has been insistent that the Afghan Constitution has bestowed that authority to the president. Ghani has been stressing that he will not allow the creation of a “two headed” government on his watch. It will also be for the first time that the designation of a CEO will be given to a de facto prime minister. As it is, CEO’s so far only figured in business enterprises not in governments.
The agreement also stipulates that the “runner up” in the presidential elections will be accorded “responsibilities, authority and honour”. The agreement states that Abdullah, instead of acting as leader of the opposition will be accorded the status of “an ally of the national unity government”. The election process, which was itself flawed, has now produced a “win-win” result for both the candidates. Any hopes that democracy will take roots in Afghanistan has received yet another set back as the opposition has now been co-opted into the government. Many Afghans, who actually cast their votes defying the Taliban, may now be asking why they risked their lives in what has turned out to be a meaningless election.
Anyway, Washington is satisfied with the outcome as both Ghani and Abdullah, unlike Karzai, have always been saying that they are in favour of the continued presence of the US forces in Afghanistan. Karzai, despite enormous pressure being brought on him had refused to sign the US-Afghanistan Bilateral Security Agreement that would have allowed US forces to stay beyond 2014. Karzai had blamed the US led ISAF for being responsible for the deaths of thousands of innocent Afghan civilians since the occupation began thirteen years ago. In one of his last speeches before demitting office, he repeated his criticism of the American role in his country and said that it had become detrimental to the peace process. Karzai was also scathing in his criticism of the role Islamabad is playing in Afghanistan. The former Afghan president has been openly saying that Pakistani security establishment is covertly helping sections of the Afghan Taliban and sabotaging the prospects of a peaceful resolution of conflict in his country. Karzai in his speech at the inauguration of the new president however said that he had realised his dream of handing over power to a successor in a democratic and peaceful way.
It was obvious after the second round of polls that Ghani, the former finance minister and World Bank official had more votes in his kitty. Unlike in the first round, the second round saw a huge turnout of voters in the Pashtun dominated areas and even in parts of the country under the influence of the Taliban. Ghani is a Pashtun while Abdullah Abdullah is of mixed Pashtun-Tajik parentage. Because he was a close aide to the late Tajik warlord, Ahmad Shah Masood, he has been viewed as a candidate representing non-Pashtun ethnic groups. The voting trends had revealed that the Afghans who bothered to vote, like in the previous elections, had voted mainly on ethnic lines. The Pashtuns who are the dominant ethnic group comprising of more than 40 percent of the population seem to have sided with Ghani. The sizeable Uzbek minority also sided with Ghani as he had chosen Dostam as his running mate. It must have been sheer electoral calculations that could have motivated Ghani, known for his administrative acumen and incorruptible ways, to choose Dostam, who is known for his opportunism as well as his venal ways. Ghani had once described Dostum as a “known murderer”. The Obama administration has hailed the formation of the new government as an important step for the “unity and increased stability of the country”.
In the last six months after the bulk of the American dominated ISAF force were withdrawn, the Taliban attacks have increased and become more brazen. More than 700 attacks have been reported in this period. The American trained Afghan army and security services have borne the brunt of the casualties. More than 2500 soldiers and policemen have been killed this year alone. After the ISAF vacated areas like Helmand, the Taliban have been quick to take control. After the new president signed the new security agreement with the US that allowed around 10,000 American troops to stay beyond 2014, the Taliban has escalated its attacks on Afghan forces. “By signing the agreement, the status of the Kabul administration, in particular the status of soldiers and police is clear”, the Taliban said in a statement. “They are working in the interests of others. And their killing is important”.
Pakistan which initially had harboured reservations about the US-Afghan Security pact has now welcomed it after Washington assured Islamabad that the foreign troops would be used only for internal security operations. Pakistan was also worried about the prospects of the long term presence of the US forces in Afghanistan and the establishment of permanent American military bases. The Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi during his visit to the US said that American troops should not withdraw from Afghanistan. India has invested over $2 billion in Afghanistan and has built close security ties with Kabul. New Delhi would have preferred Abdullah to be running the government but Ghani too has good relations with the Indian political establishment.
A US National Intelligence Estimate released late last year predicted that the Taliban would increase their influence even if the US troop presence continues in Afghanistan after 2015. The government in Kabul is on the verge of bankruptcy with not enough money to even pay the wages of its employees. With a government of its choice in place now, the West will release its purse strings and once again start disbursing aid to the tune of around $8 billion. The Ghani administration is trying to show that it is serious about tackling the endemic corruption that characterised the twelve years of the Karrzai administration. Ghani has ordered the reopening of the enquiry into the collapse of the Kabul Bank. The Bank had run a multi million dollar Ponzi scheme, which defrauded thousands of Afghan citizens. Close relatives of former president Karzai and other prominent figures in the former government are allegedly involved in the scam.
According to John Spoko, the US Special inspector for Afghan Reconstruction recently stated that the US so far has spent more than $104 billion in the last 13 years in the country to create “what could become a narco-criminal state”. Afghanistan currently produces 75 percent of the world’s illegal opium production.