The South Asia Channel

Two Kings Can’t Share Afghanistan’s Kingdom

Afghanistan has been the persistent victim of quick fix solutions that have often exacerbated rather than helped resolve the country’s numerous problems. The investment by the United States and its NATO allies of hundreds of billions of dollars, not to mention the lives of thousands of troops, to build the state’s civilian and military institutions, ...


Afghanistan has been the persistent victim of quick fix solutions that have often exacerbated rather than helped resolve the country’s numerous problems. The investment by the United States and its NATO allies of hundreds of billions of dollars, not to mention the lives of thousands of troops, to build the state’s civilian and military institutions, has been repeatedly undermined by the adoption of short-term approaches to achieving stability and security objectives. These quick fix measures, combined with weak leadership from the Afghan government, seriously undermined Afghanistan’s hope of achieving longer-term peace and stability.

The Bonn Agreement, which was negotiated in 2001 under United Nation auspices following the defeat of the Taliban regime, gave authority to a very small set of individuals and political factions to oversee the destiny of the people of Afghanistan. From the outset, it was recognized that there was a need to ensure broader representation of the Afghan people in these interim arrangements, especially by groups that had not been adequately represented during the Bonn negotiations.  But in practice, despite some attempts to create more representative institutions, including presidential, parliamentary and provincial council elections, the same small  elite networks continued to monopolize — and over time increasingly abuse —  the powers and patronage of government. The international community’s response was generally to turn a blind eye towards the corrupt and predatory behavior of government officials. The ‘quick fix’ solution of maintaining the status quo was deemed to be the prudent path to maintaining stability, whereas it was the corrupt and predatory nature of the Afghan government that was often the main factor delegitimizing the government and fueling the Taliban-led insurgency.  

The United States and its allies often did not hesitate to support and empower leaders who were known to have been responsible for massive corruption and major violations of human rights, under the false assumption that it was better to have these individuals inside the tent, where they could be controlled, rather than outside the tent. However, as they became wealthier through lucrative contracts centered around Afghanistan’s war and aid economy, as well as the illicit drug economy, they became more powerful and acted with increasing impunity. The early convenient quick fix turned into a long-term intractable problem.

Shortly after the Bonn Agreement, in 2002, the Demobilization, Disarmament, and Reintegration (DDR) process was launched in order to disarm former mujahadeen militias, help them return to a productive civilian life, and allow the government to begin to monopolize the means of violence. At the same time, however, other militias and their commanders were re-armed by U.S. troops and the International Security Assistance Force, given core responsibilities in providing security for various institutions, and in some cases, appointed by President Karzai to key Afghan National Security Force positions. Similarly, billions of dollars were spent to develop a modern, effective police force, but at the same time some of the most thuggish and criminal commanders of armed militias that had preyed on the civilian population in the past were given arms, equipment, and an official status as "Auxiliary Police," the Afghan Public Protection Force (APPF), and the Afghan Local Police (ALP). These quick fix approaches seriously undermined the role and reputation of the formal institutions that the international community had spent so much money to establish. They also contributed to alienating the population from the government.

This penchant for quick fix solutions has also had a very negative impact on the 2014 presidential election. Despite high turnout in both rounds in April and June, the credibility of electoral institutions, processes, and outcomes has been undermined by all sides pursuing their short term interests at the expense of Afghanistan’s critical need for a legitimate government that can help protect the gains of the past thirteen years and to ensure that the current constitutional order survives.

The institutions and rules governing the election were often bypassed or ignored. The electoral commission succumbed to national and international pressures and ceded control of the election to an audit conducted by the United Nations. The international community has insisted over the last few years that the election process should be Afghan owned and led, but suddenly, hundreds of international observers got involved, with high-profile diplomats and heads of state meeting and discussing ways with both candidates to solve their problem through negotiation. This, however, has led to further disgruntlement among Afghans who feel that their election is being taken over and manipulated by outside parties.

The political framework of the agreement brokered on July 12 by Secretary Kerry indicated that the two presidential candidates, Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, had agreed to a full audit of eight million votes, and that once that audit had been completed they would both abide by the result. It was also agreed that the winning candidate would form a government of national unity and the losing candidate or his nominee would become the Chief Executive Officer (CEO). These key points make sense in theory, but in reality they have served to undermine the trust and enthusiasm of the people of Afghanistan for the whole idea of elections.

Afghans voted, despite all odds and threats of violence, in order to gain for themselves and their families a better future. But the process of auditing the ballots has dragged on for two months, without producing a conclusive outcome. Instead of allowing the electoral process to work, even imperfectly, the international community imposed this deal as a quick fix.

While it looks like the audit process has now come to an end and that the results will soon be announced, there are still no guarantees that the losing candidate will abide by the audit result. There are also no guarantees that if a political agreement is reached between Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, that the agreement will last very long.  The devil, of course, will be in the details of implementing the agreement, with both parties likely to interpret the meaning of a "unity government" and the powers of the CEO and President in very different ways.

The conduct of the post- election audit and ‘unity government’ negotiations show once again the long-term dangers of quick fixes. Even if both candidates reach an agreement to form a unity government, and even if they are able to define the responsibilities and authorities of a new Chief Executive, the arrangement is likely to break down in practice as trust between the two sides has disappeared.  It is difficult to see how the parties that have failed to agree to a power-sharing agreement for two months, despite intense pressure to do so, will be able to effectively share power.

Afghanistan’s constitution is very clear: According to its unitary system, administrative authority is delegated to all ministers and other officials by the president. Experience from other countries where international mediators have attempted to forge power-sharing agreements after highly disputed election outcomes, including Cambodia in 1993, Cote D’Ivoire in 2001, and Zimbabwe and Kenya in 2008, demonstrates the fragility of such arrangements over the long run. In 2004, the international community urged Afghans to create a constitution as a means of establishing long-term stability. Ten years later, in order to solve a short -term political problem, it has created another quick fix –but this one will likely make the constitution unworkable.  As a famous Afghan saying reminds us: "A thousand beggars can live under one quilt, but two kings cannot share a kingdom."

Shahmahmood Miakhel is the Country Director for Afghanistan at the U.S. Institute of Peace and former Deputy Minister of Interior for Afghanistan. The views expressed in this article are his own. 

Shahmahmood Miakhel is a member of Electoral Reform Commission (ERC) and Country Director of the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) in Afghanistan. He is also a former Deputy Minister of Interior of Afghanistan.

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