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Forget the President, Afghanistan’s Fate Relies on the CEO

The future of Afghanistan may come down to a simple question: Can a country have a CEO? The job title that’s synonymous with Wall Street is now dominating backroom discussions in Kabul as the country struggles to decide how to divide power after a contested presidential election mired by allegations of systemic fraud. The runoff, ...

Photo via Getty Images
Photo via Getty Images
Photo via Getty Images

The future of Afghanistan may come down to a simple question: Can a country have a CEO?

The job title that's synonymous with Wall Street is now dominating backroom discussions in Kabul as the country struggles to decide how to divide power after a contested presidential election mired by allegations of systemic fraud. The runoff, the first in the country's history, pits Ashraf Ghani, the former finance minister, against Abdullah Abdullah, the former foreign minister, who has been contesting the results ever since the June 14 vote.

Abdullah is disputing the outcome of the election, which is expected to declare Ghani the winner as early as next week. To stave off a bloody confrontation, Barack Obama's administration is pushing for a unity government that would give the losing candidate the title of "chief executive officer," an administrative position with uncertain powers and influence.

The future of Afghanistan may come down to a simple question: Can a country have a CEO?

The job title that’s synonymous with Wall Street is now dominating backroom discussions in Kabul as the country struggles to decide how to divide power after a contested presidential election mired by allegations of systemic fraud. The runoff, the first in the country’s history, pits Ashraf Ghani, the former finance minister, against Abdullah Abdullah, the former foreign minister, who has been contesting the results ever since the June 14 vote.

Abdullah is disputing the outcome of the election, which is expected to declare Ghani the winner as early as next week. To stave off a bloody confrontation, Barack Obama’s administration is pushing for a unity government that would give the losing candidate the title of "chief executive officer," an administrative position with uncertain powers and influence.

The long list of unknowns about the CEO position could easily cause Abdullah to walk out of negotiations over a unity government. In an interview, a senior Afghan official said Afghanistan’s president would have the authority to fire the CEO at any time and sole discretion in deciding how much power to give the newly appointed official. Assuming the current results hold, for example, President Ghani could appoint Chief Executive Officer Abdullah and allow him to chair important meetings of the country’s national security council and have the country’s ministers of defense and the interior report straight to him. By contrast, a President Ghani could also choose to treat Prime Minister Abdullah as a glorified advisor with no real executive authority and keep him in the post for a year or less before ousting him.

"From the beginning no one was seriously considering splitting power in half," the senior Afghan official said. "There will have to be a presidential decree creating the CEO position, so the CEO would inherently have fewer powers than the president."

That could change, but not for at least two years. The Afghan official said Kabul plans to hold a loya jirga — a Pashto term for a gathering of the country’s key religious and political figures — in 2016 to consider whether to amend the Afghan Constitution and create a prime minister position that would have clearly defined and legally protected powers. Under such an arrangement, the Afghan president would likely still appoint the prime minister, but that official would be able to control much of the executive branch of Afghanistan’s government.

Ultimately, the Afghan official said, the stability of the unity government will depend on the personal relationship between Ghani and Abdullah and their levels of trust and mutual respect. Given the rancor that has followed the runoff, it’s easy to assume that the two men will take office with little of either. On the other hand, it’s also possible that both men recognize that they will need to work closely to maintain needed support from Washington and other Western nations.

Iraq provides a cautionary tale. In the aftermath of the country’s highly contested 2010 elections, the Obama administration tried to help create a new and powerful national security advisor position that would have given former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, whose party had won the most seats, some control over the country’s security forces. In the end, though, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki wasn’t willing to cede that much of his power to Allawi. Allawi called off the power-sharing talks and went into the opposition; Maliki, who recently stepped down, implemented harshly sectarian and pro-Shiite policies that are thought to have helped spark the current Sunni rebellion against Baghdad.

In Afghanistan, Washington remains heavily invested in the negotiations — and is clearly hoping the end result will be better than had been the case in Iraq. "The secretary is regularly in touch with both candidates," a senior U.S. State Department official said on Friday, Sept. 5. In phone calls with both candidates in the past week, the official said, Secretary of State John Kerry "stressed the importance of national unity and a peaceful political process for the future of the Afghan people."

The uncertainty over Afghanistan’s future loomed large over this week’s NATO leaders’ summit in Wales, despite the emergence of more prominent crises in Ukraine, Iraq, and Syria. On Friday, Obama urged the two Afghan presidential candidates to "make the compromises that are necessary so Afghans can move forward together and form a sovereign, united, and democratic nation." A day earlier, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the alliance is prepared to commit $4.1 billion in funding for Afghan security forces once the political stalemate is resolved.

In an effort to assuage concerns, the rival politicians sent a joint letter to NATO leaders on Thursday pledging to form a unity government and sign legal agreements allowing NATO troops to stay and train the Afghan army following the end of combat operations in December.

"We believe in an inclusive political vision. We will form a government of national unity and will honor the participation of our people in the election process," Abdullah and Ghani said.

Just a few days earlier, the Abdullah delegation protested a United Nations audit of millions of votes from the runoff, claiming that the process of vetting votes was fraudulent. The turmoil threatened to spoil what was supposed to be a celebratory NATO summit feting Afghanistan’s new leader and marking the alliance’s upcoming transition away from combat operations and toward an advisory role. In the place of either Abdullah or Ghani, Afghanistan’s defense minister, Gen. Bismillah Khan Mohammadi, attended the NATO summit.

By December, the Obama administration is planning to withdraw all troops save for some 10,000 to advise the Afghan army and conduct counterterrorism operations. That number would shrink by half at the end of 2015 and fall off to just 1,000 at the end of 2016.

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