Challenges galore for new Afghan order

In a functional democracy, elections have to have clear winners and losers, but in Afghanistan, victory did not mean winner-takes-all

Image Credit: AP
Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani, center, sitting next to chief executive Abdullah Abdullah, attends an event for the Afghan Women's Empowerment Grants Program in Kabul, Afghanistan, Saturday, Nov. 8, 2014. The program initiated by the U.S. government and funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) will help 75,000 young Afghan women become leaders in their fields over the course of the five-year program, according to USAID. It provides $216 million to promote, with other donors it hopes contributing an additional $200 million. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)
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The national unity government (NUG) in Afghanistan has been in power since early last month, after months of wrangling over election disputes. So far, public reaction has been overwhelmingly positive, especially due to the proactive governance style of President Ashraf Gani. From the fight against corruption to building institutions and reaching out to a wide spectrum of Afghan society, Gani has already embarked upon taking the initial steps to deliver on his campaign promises. In doing so, he has begun to win hearts and minds, which is essential for consolidating his hard-won victory. However, in spite of all the euphoria, one cannot ignore the rough road and challenges ahead as dictated by political realities of the country and external factors that are beyond the control of the new administration.

What seemed like a looming crisis — the election deadlock — was amicably resolved by a deal brokered by the US with the active involvement of United Nations. Yet, one cannot underestimate the role of former president Hamid Karzai. He was instrumental in making both Gani and Abdullah agree on the political framework that could accommodate the two rivals in an NUG. In an institutionalised and functional democracy, elections have to have clear winners and losers. Yet, in the Afghan context, victory did not mean winner-takes-all. Gani was the winner, as later confirmed by the independent election commission, but had to choose between an imminent crisis and a power-sharing arrangement with his rival, Abdullah Abdullah. It must have been a difficult decision for Gani, but in retrospect, the deal seems to have served the national interests, although to the dismay of his supporters. Eventually, a ‘happy ending’ to the election drama; and the credit goes to Karzai, Gani and Abdullah.

With Gani as President and Abdullah as Chief Executive, the new government in Kabul has initiated an ambitious agenda of change and reform. Difficult as it may seem, with strong political will from both partners in the NUG, there is no reason why success cannot be achieved as Afghanistan has never been so prepared to embrace change as it is now.

Immediately after taking the oath of office, Gani issued a decree making all the sitting ministers as ‘acting’ till the appointment of new ones. The most daunting task ahead for both Gani and Abdullah is formation of the new cabinet in which they have almost equal share. Striking a balance between political heavyweights and technocrats will be the most challenging part of government formation. It is feared that many of those who may be politically powerful and may have widely campaigned in both camps may lack the necessary competence. Yet, good governance will require a capable and committed team. All indications are that the new administration is poised to be a mix of politicians, technocrats and power-brokers. At the end of the day, both Gani and Abdullah are accountable to the Afghan people and not to those who contributed to their campaign efforts. Let this message be loud and clear to the NUG.

Despite the concerns, there are indications that the new government in Kabul means business. True to his word, Gani managed to sign the long-awaited Bilateral Security Agreement with the US on the second day of taking office, showing decisiveness and a clear break from policies of his predecessor. The agreement is supposed to secure continuous US support to Afghan National Security Forces in return for allowing the US forces to stay on Afghan soil. The re-opening of the Kabul Bank case for investigation and challenging the status quo within the state machinery exhibit a change in the offing and have raised hopes for a better future for the country.

In spite of all the optimism, inherent bottlenecks do seem to exist because of the way the NUG is structured. It certainly suffers from a multiplicity of reporting lines and the ambiguity therein. Having a president with two vice-presidents together with a Chief Executive and his two deputies may complicate the functioning of the government further. This may potentially lead to difficulties in future once problems arise due to policy differences in the two camps that have now joined hands.

The new government in Afghanistan has a bumpy road ahead. The most daunting task for Gani and Abdullah is to ensure peace to the country. As for Gani, he seems to be pushing through his agenda of regional economic integration as a driving force for Afghanistan and its neighbours to genuinely collaborate in bringing peace to the region. Gani wants to re-define Afghanistan’s relations with its neighbours and beyond. On the domestic front, he has planned to usher in an era of economic growth, prosperity and end to endemic corruption. He cannot succeed without a committed and competent team having the political will. And Abdullah’s role in giving the necessary political support to make the reform agenda succeed is crucial.

With a new government in place, Afghanistan has a golden opportunity to rebuild the state and the nation.

Ajmal Shams is president of the Afghanistan Social Democratic Party, better known as Afghan Millat National Progressive Party, and is based in Kabul. He served as policy advisor to presidential candidate Ashraf Gani when he chaired the Security Transition Commission. He mainly writes on political and developmental issues.

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