The South Asia Channel

NUG One Year On: Struggling to Govern

Divisions within the National Unity Government have rendered the agreement ineffective over time. An analysis of political appointments reveals biases toward informal patronage and certain ethnic groups that put Afghanistan's stability at risk.

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN - SEPTEMBER 25: Abdullah Abdullah (C), former Afghani presidential candidate attends a gathering in Kabul Afghanistan on September 25, 2014. Abdullah Abdullah congratulated President-elect Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai on his victory in the country's general election and vowed to support him in a national unity government. (Photo by Haroon Sabawoon / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images)
KABUL, AFGHANISTAN - SEPTEMBER 25: Abdullah Abdullah (C), former Afghani presidential candidate attends a gathering in Kabul Afghanistan on September 25, 2014. Abdullah Abdullah congratulated President-elect Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai on his victory in the country's general election and vowed to support him in a national unity government. (Photo by Haroon Sabawoon / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images)

A year into the power-sharing arrangement between Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah, Afghanistan’s National Unity Government (NUG) is struggling to realize its raison d’etre.

The administration is encumbered by personal and institutional divisions within the NUG, notably between Ghani and Abdullah and their camps. The multiple and varying bases of authority have drawn out the process of administrative appointments, forcing the President and CEO to continuously negotiate and re-negotiate political pacts entered into during the 2014 presidential election. It took months of horse-trading and delays before the NUG was able to agree on appointing 27 cabinet ministers and 25 provincial governors.

The wrangling has severely compromised the NUG’s effectiveness. The scheduled 2015 parliamentary elections have been postponed indefinitely, with the terms of existing MPs being extended until new elections are held. Thousands of young Afghans are losing hope and are leaving the country, with the Kabul Passport Office issuing more than 2000 passports a day, a sixfold increase from the same time last year. With the international forces pulling out, the Afghan economy is experiencing serious stagnation with unemployment soaring.

The negative impact on government legitimacy has been severe. According to a recent poll conducted by TOLO News and ATR Consulting, a majority of the population are “not satisfied at all” with Ghani’s government. Abdullah’s rating is similarly low.

A detailed analysis of the NUG’s appointments that we conducted—including examining presidential decrees, conducting interviews with public officials, and news analysis—suggests a shift in power from Karzai’s former clients, mainly former jihadi elites (who originated in the 1980s and fought each other from 1992 to 2001 over the control of the state) to a mix of western educated technocrats. Powerful and influential figures such as liberal reformers Rangin Spanta and Omar Daudzai, and traditional religious authorities such as Ishaq Gailani and Abd Rab Rasul Sayyaf are no longer part of the politically influential circle. Instead, the governors of the key provinces of Herat, Kandahar, Kunar, and Kunduz are technocrats, who have to compete with strongmen that control the security institutions and sources of finance such as the provincial customs.

This sudden shift in power is risky as it undermines the logic of the post-2001 Afghan state, where ethno-regional patrons controlled strategic parts of the Afghan economy and polity and as a result had an incentive to maintain the status quo. Prior to 2014, cabinet, gubernatorial, and deputy ministerial posts were occupied by individuals who were clients in Hamid Karzai’s extended patronage network. Today, Ghani and Abdullah compete to appoint their own clients to these positions of power. Recent appointments by Ghani and Abdullah are undoing the bases of political order and stability in Afghanistan. Karzai was able to hold onto power after the Bonn Agreement of 2001 because of his ability to maintain an equilibrium among competing ethno-regional leaders and centers of power.

In a bid to control and expand his power, Ghani is relying on (and even expanding) informal patronage. Our analysis of his recent appointments suggests that he has deliberately sidelined the Independent Administrative Reform and Civil Service Commission, which is responsible for the overall appointment of civil servants. Ironically, in the past, Ghani had been extremely critical of Karzai’s propensity to make appointments sans procedure.

These appointments have further exacerbated identity-based grievances. In particular, the ethnicization of the Afghan bureaucracy is a cause for concern. Recent administrative appointments reveal the intensification of patronage politics along ethnic lines. Our detailed analysis of the President’s appointments—mapping the list of appointees with their ethnic backgrounds—suggests that the President’s Office of Administrative Affairs (OAA) is predominantly composed of Pashtun technocrats. Not only that, it is predominantly eastern Ghilzai Pashtuns at the expense of southern Durrani Pashtuns.

Our analysis of the ethnic composition of senior appointments made within the OAA betrays a clear favoring of technocratic Pashtuns: 75 percent (21 appointees) are Pashtun while 14 percent (four appointees) are Tajik. Ghani’s list of advisors is also made up mostly of people of eastern Pashtun origin: 69 percent (22 appointees) Pashtun against 19 percent (six appointees) Tajik. Ethnic-Hazaras and Uzbeks each hold less than three percent of the appointments.

Abdullah and others followed suit, appointing aides mainly from within their own ethnic groups. Appointments to the CEO’s Office favored former ethnic-Tajik jihadis. Mohammad Mohaqqeq, Abdullah’s second vice-CEO, too, has appointed a majority of ethnic-Hazara aides — 87.5 percent, in fact — to his own office. One could argue that this was inevitable as Abdullah and Mohaqqeq supporters were from the ethnic Tajik and Hazara communities. However, by not setting a good example the president has undermined his moral authority and set the space for abuse by other actors.

Today, patronage and ethnicization has once again provided the space and opportunity for ethno-regional leaders to flourish. The recent debate on biometric identity cards provides an excellent occasion for spoilers to intensify ethnic rhetoric for their personal gain.

Unity Government leaders must take steps to avoid scenarios that mirror the instability witnessed in Iraq wherein the state was fragmented along ethnic lines — in Afghanistan ethnic divisions could lead to the strengthening of the Taliban and other extremist groups such as ISIS. What Afghanistan needs during its transition period is unity and ethnic harmony. The Unity Government must overcome its differences over appointments and control of state resources, taking care in future appointments to ensure inclusive government for all Afghans.

Photo by Haroon Sabawoon / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images

Timor Sharan is an Afghan academic scholar with a PhD in political economy of international intervention and statehood in Afghanistan from the University of Exeter. Sharan has published in peer-reviewed international journals including the Central Asian Survey and Ethnopolitics. Follow him on Twitter at @TSharan2.

Srinjoy Bose is the Prime Minister’s Endeavour Award recipient and a PhD scholar at the Australian National University. He was an international elections observer during the April 5 and June 14 presidential and provincial council elections in Kabul. Bose has contributed to Foreign Policy magazine in the past and has published in peer-review journals including the Australian Journal of International Affairs and Strategic Analysis.

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