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Afghanistan’s Political Transition
Afghanistan’s Political Transition
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
There’s No Shortcut to Peace in Afghanistan
There’s No Shortcut to Peace in Afghanistan
Report 260 / Asia

Afghanistan’s Political Transition

Afghanistan’s new president, Ashraf Ghani, inherits a government that is running out of money and losing ground to the insurgency. As foreign troops withdraw, the new government must stay united and move quickly on reforms.

Executive Summary

Ashraf Ghani was inaugurated as president of Afghanistan on 29 September, under difficult circumstances. He inherited a government that is running out of money and losing ground to a rising insurgency. His ability to confront those problems and other challenges as foreign troops withdraw will be shaped by the aftermath of the political contest that brought him to power. Forming a national unity government with his election rival Abdullah Abdullah presents opportunities to stabilise the transition, preventing further erosion of state cohesiveness. Yet, it also poses risks, particularly of factionalism within Kabul, which could undermine urgently needed reforms. Given the international role in developing the agreements that have created this new partnership, and the absence of mechanisms to resolve internal differences, the international community should serve as a guarantor of Kabul’s new political order and, if necessary, mediate any serious disputes that arise.

Political transitions in Afghanistan have always been fraught. The transfer of power in 2014 may yet prove the most peaceful handover of leadership in the country’s history, despite the tensions that emerged in the process. Hamid Karzai now stands as the only Afghan leader to have voluntarily surrendered his office, and his legacy will be further strengthened if he uses his considerable influence to make the next administration a success and refrains from trying to control the new president.

Karzai’s departure was mandated by the constitution, but a genuine contest to replace him was never guaranteed. In 2013 and early 2014, Western diplomats pushed their Afghan counterparts to ensure the election would go ahead as planned and Afghan elites engaged in a vigorous struggle over the rules and authorities that would govern the process. The absence of a dominant candidate led to colourful campaigns ahead of the 5 April first round, and all the major slates included candidates from a diverse mix of ethnicities, tribes and political factions – which meant that the first round did not place significant stress on the traditional fault lines of Afghan society. Urban areas enjoyed a celebratory mood after the apparently successful first round, which encouraged observers to overlook signs of fraud.

The second round became far more divisive as ethnic Pashtuns and Uzbeks rallied in large numbers around the Pashtun candidate Ghani and his Uzbek running mate Abdul Rashid Dostum; at the same time, Abdullah’s ticket became identified mainly with ethnic Tajiks and some powerful Hazara factions. These divisions were aggravated by a perception in the Abdullah camp that Karzai, a Pashtun himself, threw the resources of the presidency behind Ghani before the 14 June run-off. Abdullah’s supporters threatened violent action after preliminary results showed Ghani winning, which prompted urgent international mediation, and a 12 July deal to audit all of the votes and give the losing party a role in a unity government.

This gave rise to an extended standoff between the Ghani and Abdullah campaigns, as the two sides disagreed about how votes should be disqualified for fraud and how the next administration might include both teams. The impasse was broken when Ghani and Abdullah signed a four-page agreement on 21 September, promising a “genuine and meaningful partnership” that made Ghani president and gave Abdullah the freshly created role of chief executive officer who answers to the president but has powers similar to that of an executive prime minister.

Abdullah strengthened the legitimacy of the new government by publicly acknowledging Ghani as the next president, but their arrangement will face serious tests in the coming months as the two sides negotiate the appointment of cabinet ministers, governors and other key officials. Disenchanted voters will also likely want to see final results from the electoral commissions, which have so far not published any tallies.

Ghani and Abdullah must also steer the government through some urgent business in the coming weeks, including satisfying the requirements of the Financial Action Task Force and the Tokyo Mutual Accountability Framework, to prevent Afghanistan from being blacklisted by financial institutions and ensure continued donor support. The new government did, however, sign the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the U.S. one day after Ghani’s inauguration, followed the same day by signing the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with NATO. The two agreements allow the continued presence of ten-thousand-plus foreign forces after December 2014, in addition to technical, fiscal and material support to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). Still, the new government will need to persuade donors to give billions of dollars to maintain the ANSF personnel roster in the coming years and provide technical capabilities such as air support. Even with some foreign troops staying in the country, Afghanistan’s security forces will likely face unprecedented challenges during the 2015 fighting season.

Some of the damage to the reputation of democracy in Afghanistan, after such a bruising process, might also be repaired with a transparent review of lessons that could be applied to strengthen the 2015 parliamentary and 2019 presidential elections. Such a review, with the potential for reconsidering laws, regulations, and even the constitution, may allow for some dilution of the winner-takes-all and overly centralised presidential system, as well as other necessary reforms. A shakeup of the Kabul elites may also provide a rare opportunity to reduce corruption, provided Ghani and Abdullah are willing to confront the entrenched interests of their own supporters.

Despite rising violence, the behaviour of Taliban commanders during the second round of voting suggests a capacity for political behaviour by the insurgents that could, with time, potentially turn into an opening for negotiations about how to eventually resolve the conflict. Ghani has offered political talks to the Taliban and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hizb-e Islami, but he must avoid any unilateral attempts to reach out to the insurgents; if done without Abdullah’s active participation and backing, such efforts could risk unravelling the national unity government and hence a fragile political transition.

Op-Ed / Asia

There’s No Shortcut to Peace in Afghanistan

Originally published in Foreign Policy

Washington’s latest idea of a transitional government would be worse than the dysfunctional status quo.

If there is one thing the United States should have learned after two decades in Afghanistan, it’s that there are no quick fixes. That has proved true for the war, and it’s true for any possibility of a negotiated peace. But faced with the decision whether to comply with a May 1 deadline for pulling out all troops under a deal the U.S. government signed with the Taliban in February 2020, Washington is now searching for a shortcut to an Afghan political settlement. There isn’t one.

U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad has delivered to the Afghan government and Taliban a draft Afghanistan Peace Agreement—the central idea of which is replacing the elected Afghan government with a so-called transitional one that would include the Taliban and then negotiate among its members the future permanent system of government. Crucial blank spaces in the draft include the exact share of power for each of the warring sides and which side would control security institutions.

At the same time, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken wrote to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, in a letter that soon leaked, saying it was “urgent” to “accelerate peace talks” and move “quickly toward a settlement.” The letter states that the United States has asked Turkey to host a high-level meeting between the Afghan sides “in the coming weeks to finalize a peace agreement.” The letter also references a U.S.-proposed 90-day reduction in violence (a concept short of a cease-fire) while diplomacy continues—which suggests that Washington knows an agreement within weeks is unlikely.

Chances that Taliban leaders or Ghani would agree to anything like the U.S. draft peace agreement are vanishingly small. But if they do, the result will be worse than this gambit failing.

Chances that Taliban leaders or Ghani would agree to anything like the U.S. draft peace agreement are vanishingly small. But if they do, the result will be worse than this gambit failing.

For the Taliban, the draft has too many hallmarks of the existing government setup: It includes a commitment to holding elections and keeping in place the constitution devised under U.S. auspices in 2004 until a new one is written. The available evidence of Taliban thinking points to their rejecting any arrangement that would make them appear co-opted into a system they have long opposed in exchange for a partial share of power.

For Ghani, the proposal is premised on him relinquishing power. That brutal fact, plus the rough-edged tone of Blinken’s letter, has whipped up a political tempest in Kabul. Afghan Vice President Amrullah Saleh reacted most bluntly, saying Afghanistan would “never accept a bossy and imposed peace.” Ghani knows that the main Afghan enthusiasts of the transitional government idea are his political opposition and the country’s former mujahideen, who sense opportunity to gain power as it is parceled out.

In the unlikely event the new U.S. peace plan materializes, the power-sharing arrangement it envisions would be prone to collapse. A body comprising multiple factions plus the Taliban—at a stage of the peace process before they’ve even begun to hash out core issues that divide them—would be less functional and less stable than the fragile government in place now. The hard work of negotiating the structure of a future Afghan state will not be eased by prematurely erasing the current one. And if a fractious transitional government fails, the cease-fire the U.S. plan promises would evaporate with it.

The U.S. proposal reflects a boiling over of Washington’s frustrations with Ghani. The Afghan leader’s critics have accused him of obstructing a peace process that has sapped his government of its already tenuous authority. The past several Afghan elections have been bitterly contested, the country’s politics are deeply corrupt, and service provision is increasingly limited to population centers, with the Taliban insurgency operating freely throughout much of the countryside.

The U.S. proposal reflects a boiling over of Washington’s frustrations with Ghani.

But however much Ghani has contributed to slowing the process, dismantling the elected government is unlikely to hasten peace. The Taliban have not moved any faster. It took over a year of bilateral negotiations and numerous U.S. concessions for the Taliban to sign a four-page agreement spelling out a tight timeline for U.S. and NATO withdrawal and more ambiguous Taliban promises to prevent Afghanistan being used as a launching pad for terrorists. And the Taliban remain coy about details of the political vision they seek to realize. Official Taliban statements that their movement will accept some degree of power sharing are contradicted by internal messaging emphasizing victory and ascendance.

After delays for which the United States was as much to blame as any other party, Afghan talks finally commenced last September in Doha, Qatar. They’ve progressed haltingly, at least in part because the parties are waiting for a new U.S. government to signal whether it will stay committed to a process the previous one catalyzed.

The slow pace now clashes with the deadline for withdrawing foreign troops. That’s a problem the U.S.-Taliban deal caused by decoupling the withdrawal timetable from any requirement of progress in negotiations. But it’s also a problem that can’t be solved by demands to speed up the hard slog of reaching a political settlement.

It will be difficult to get the peace process in Doha to produce results, but it’s too soon to jettison a process that has taken years to set up and has only just begun. Instead of promoting a new plan that has almost no chance of being accepted and that would further weaken the Afghan state, Washington should put its energy into testing whether the Doha process can be made to work.

It will be difficult to get the peace process in Doha to produce results, but it’s too soon to jettison a process that has taken years to set up and has only just begun.

This should include rallying the regional powers, especially Pakistan, Iran, China, Russia, and India—who all have links to actors in the Afghan conflict—around generating momentum for the existing process. A high-level meeting of this group, which Washington has asked the United Nations to convene, is a good idea, but these stakeholders need a better peace plan to coalesce around than the new U.S. proposal.

If the United States wants to give the talks a real chance, then it will need to keep troops in Afghanistan beyond May 1 to maintain leverage for forging a settlement and to forestall a downward security spiral that would spike the process.

Ongoing talks would provide the best argument Washington could make to regional powers, especially Pakistan, for why they should help pressure the Taliban to let the deadline slip.

But if talks break down—as they probably will, given how divided the parties are and how rarely peace processes succeed—then it will be better to have even a dysfunctional Afghan government still standing than to have replaced it with a stopgap transitional one whose existence would not survive the end of negotiations. And if the Biden administration plans to pull out U.S. forces soon, then it’s better not to risk leaving such wreckage behind.

Contributors

Program Director, Asia
LaurelMillerICG
Senior Analyst, Afghanistan
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