The South Asia Channel

Is the Afghan Unity Government a Roadmap for Negotiations With the Taliban?

Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai was inaugurated as president of Afghanistan on Sept. 29, 2014, after a three-month-long dispute over the outcome of the June 14 runoff election. A Sept. 21 agreement between Ghani and runner-up Abdullah Abdullah provided for the establishment of a national unity government and created a new position: chief executive officer, held by ...

Dan Kitwood - Pool/Getty Images
Dan Kitwood - Pool/Getty Images

Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai was inaugurated as president of Afghanistan on Sept. 29, 2014, after a three-month-long dispute over the outcome of the June 14 runoff election. A Sept. 21 agreement between Ghani and runner-up Abdullah Abdullah provided for the establishment of a national unity government and created a new position: chief executive officer, held by Abdullah. It also contained long-term provisions to allow for permanently establishing the office of executive prime minister, institutionalizing the role created for Abdullah by decree.

This agreement renews the pact among Afghans and members of the international community on the legitimacy of the Afghan state. The dispute over the outcome of the 2014 presidential election forced re-negotiation of that pact to provide the opposition, led by Tajiks from north Afghanistan, with a long-sought mechanism for power-sharing: a prime ministerial office in addition to the presidency. While the president has initially established the post of CEO by executive decree, a permanent and binding change to the system of government will require a constitutional amendment enacted by a Loya Jirga. In return for Abdullah’s post, his supporters accepted Ghani as president — something they had contested in a dispute that threatened to divide the country along regional and ethnic lines.

The agreement’s roadmap might also serve as a framework for a political settlement with those Afghans still fighting the government, mainly the Taliban. Such a political settlement is the sole way to reduce the country’s overwhelming security expenses to a level it can sustain and create the conditions for stability and development that both Afghanistan and its neighbors desperately need. Forces intended to counter the current level of threat are currently paid for entirely by foreign security assistance (about $6 billion per year, equal to about thirty percent of the country’s GDP and three times the entire revenue of the government). Even a modest reduction in the level of foreign security assistance could throw the country into a massive security and fiscal crisis.

Stage 1: Renewing the Constitutional Coalition

Creating the office of CEO and potentially the executive prime minister could facilitate power-sharing — but only if the powers of the president and CEO or prime minister are designed to prevent a deadlock. Sharing power in an effective government can help stabilize the country — sharing powerlessness in a paralyzed government will not.

The issue of establishing the office of prime minister goes back at least to the 2001 Bonn Agreement. Groups that were then part of the United Front (commonly known as the Northern Alliance) have favored a prime minister accountable to parliament, believing that the need for a parliamentary majority would force the creation of inter-ethnic coalitions, rather than concentrating power in a Pashtun president. Others, including former President Hamid Karzai, argued that given the weakness of Afghanistan’s institutions, especially political parties, such a system would create deadlock and instability.

The final agreement between Ghani and Abdullah envisages an "executive" prime minister operating under the president’s broad authority in a mixed system, which might be the best compromise for now, as long as it is structured coherently. In such a system, the president is the chief executive with authority over the prime minister, whom he or she appoints and can remove, without reference to parliament. Thus, the president is the chief executive of the government, which the prime minister manages. In many such systems, the parliament can remove the prime minister through a vote of no confidence but the president then has the option to dissolve the parliament and hold new legislative elections. The current agreement is silent on whether an executive prime minister would be subject to approval or removal by parliamentary vote; the CEO is not. 

Negotiating a constitutional amendment to establish a mixed system risks combining the institutions of president and prime minister in such a way as to leave no authoritative mechanism to resolve conflicts between them. This isn’t Afghanistan’s first discussion of constitutional provisions for a mixed system. The Afghan constitutional drafting commission proposed a mixed system in Sept. 2003. Many members of the constitutional commission favored a parliamentary system, but Karzai insisted that the constitution should include a directly-elected president. The commission then grafted his request onto a parliamentary system, resulting in a structure in which, in the words of the draft in this author’s possession, "the prime minister and members of the government are responsible to the president and the House of the People [lower house of parliament], collectively." Such dual accountability effectively proposed a state with two heads of government and two sources of authority with no effective mechanism to settle conflicts between the two. The Afghan cabinet at the time, including both Abdullah and Ghani, eliminated the prime ministry and submitted a draft providing for a pure presidential system. This year’s failure of the presidential election to deliver an undisputed verdict — for reasons I predicted in a previous article — forced the reopening of this issue.

Stage Two: Reconciliation

Now that President Ghani is in office, he and Abdullah will have to revisit several issues about reconciliation. On ‘Eid-ul-Adha President Ghani stated: "We want to say, clearly, to all political opponents, that war is not the solution for Afghan problems. An Afghan-led peace is the only way and political opposition must be transformed to a political process."

They will have to weigh how to coordinate outreach to the Taliban with engagement of their Pakistani hosts. While Pakistan no longer wants a Taliban-controlled government in Afghanistan, Pakistan wants to use its "influence" with the Taliban as leverage with Afghanistan over bilateral issues like India’s presence in Afghanistan, Kabul’s longstanding refusal to recognize the border, and the apparent use of Afghan territory as a sanctuary by some Pakistani Taliban.

The new Afghan government will also have to decide how to seek dialogue with the Taliban, even as it continues the fight. Ghani may recognize that the Taliban’s political office in Doha represents the movement, something Karzai resisted. He will also have to decide how to engage both the Pakistan-based Taliban leadership and the Afghanistan-based commanders, perhaps by asking for some good offices from the U.N. and lifting Karzai’s ban on track-two meetings between Taliban representatives and unofficial groups of Afghans.

Afghanistan’s neighbors other than Pakistan will also have to be involved. China, faced with separatist and Islamist violence in the Xinjiang region, now considers the stability of Afghanistan as essential to its security, no longer seeing relations with Afghanistan as an extension of ties to Pakistan. China has made clear to all, including Pakistan, that while it supports a settlement to bring the Taliban into the political system, it opposes a Taliban government in Afghanistan. As part of its 2014 chairmanship of the Heart of Asia countries (Istanbul process), a regional platform to support Afghanistan’s stability, China has started discussion of a regional forum for reconciliation, which could usefully marshal support for the core talks among Afghans. While China will never criticize or pressure Pakistan in public, its position may strengthen those in Islamabad who see the country’s future in cooperation rather than confrontation with its neighbors.

The unity government will find it difficult to pursue a political settlement without cooperation between the United States and Iran, by far the most influential countries over it political components. Iran could have tried to disrupt the talks over the unity government through its influence over some of Abdullah’s camp, but instead it supported the negotiations and regards the outcome as a fragile "success." Iran could similarly use its influence within the unity government to block a reconciliation process it considered a threat. If the United States and Iran reach a nuclear agreement, the two countries might be able to renew the cooperation they had in Afghanistan during 2001-2002.

None of these policies can work if the Taliban have transnational aspirations or will settle for no less than re-establishing the Islamic Emirate as the government of Afghanistan, something they have never included in their stated goals. Despite providing foreign fighters with refuge in return for their help in Afghanistan, the Taliban have publicly limited their goals to Afghanistan, and there is no evidence to suggest they have supported the international agenda of al Qaeda, the Islamic State, or other such groups. In his most recent annual statement on the occasion of ‘Eid ul-Fitr Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar called on his fighters "to protect their borders and maintain good relations with neighboring countries on the basis of mutual respect," not to erase borders as ISIS has done.  Omar’s title, "commander of the faithful," denotes leadership of a jihad, not necessarily a claim to the caliphate, and has been used by Muslim leaders in that sense for centuries.

The Taliban have never stated that their goal is to re-establish the Emirate, though they have not renounced it either. In his ‘Eid statement, Omar said, "The war in Afghanistan will come to an end when all foreign invaders pull out of Afghanistan and a holy Islamic and independent regime prevails" in Afghanistan and the Afghans "establish an independent Islamic government on the basis of their religious and national aspirations." He could easily have said the war would end when troops leave and the Islamic Emirate rules Afghanistan, but he didn’t.

Living under Afghanistan’s constitution is one of the internationally agreed upon conditions the Taliban would have to fulfill in any settlement. A statement by Taliban officials from the political office from a Dec. 20-21, 2012 track-two event with other Afghans in France supported a constitutional government:

The personal, civil and political rights of all citizens of Afghanistan shall be regulated through the Constitution; rights shall be given to all brother ethnicities without discrimination; will make clear relations between the government and people; will shed light on balance of government three structured powers [branches of government]; will determine government’s type, administration and powers; in sum, will gain acceptance from the Afghan nation and the world regarding the internal and foreign policy of Afghanistan. . . . With the blessing of constitution, the way shall be paved for political power balance and all Afghan parties to participate in the upcoming government.    

We clearly state the stipulations of the constitution shall be written by Afghan scholars in a free atmosphere and will then be presented to the nation for approval. The current constitution of Afghanistan is illegitimate because it is written under the shadows of B-52 aircraft.

The Taliban have not issued any statement outlining specific disagreements with the constitution. They have denounced "democracy" as a Western imposition. If they maintain that position, no comprehensive agreement will be possible. But a very consistent objection is the one with which the above statement ends — that the constitution was written "in the shadow of B-52 aircraft." A former Guantánamo detainee or member of the target list would find it difficult simply to accept the legitimacy of a document concluded while they were detained or targeted; acceptance would constitute surrender, not reconciliation.

The constitutional amendment process required by the national unity government could provide a way out. The Loya Jirga necessary to enact such amendments could provide a setting to engage Taliban and others on a revised compact as full stakeholders. Taliban participation in the parliament and district councils elections scheduled for 2015 could provide a means for them to gain seats in the Loya Jirga. They could do so either as an organization or (more likely) as individuals.

Involving insurgents as one of several groups, including women and members of all ethnic groups, in the political process is a more appropriate format for reconciliation rather than an agreement solely between the Taliban and the government. Including the Taliban in such a process, in which they would confront the entirety of today’s Afghan political spectrum, would provide a better guarantee of preserving Afghanistan’s gains. If the Taliban participate in the process, they could ally with the powerful conservative forces within the constitutional coalition to try to roll back some of the hard-won rights of Afghans, especially women. Continued and sustainable international support will still be necessary. But those gains will be secure only when Afghans can defend them within their own institutions.

Barnett R. Rubin is acting director and senior fellow at the Center on International Cooperation at New York University. During 2009-2013 he was senior advisor to the U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan in the Department of State. He is the author of Afghanistan from the Cold War through the War on Terror and other books. Additional information and resources on Afghan constitutional reform are available at:

The work of the Center on International Cooperation on Afghanistan is supported by Norway and the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Thomas Gregg, Tom Zimmermann, and Said Sabir provided assistance and comments. All views are those of the author alone.

Note on security expenditure:

In 2013, the U.S. Congress appropriated $4.9 billion to Afghanistan Security Force Fund, of which the DoD is obliged to disburse $3.3 billion. DoD has disbursed a little over $3 billion. The appropriation for financial year 2014 is $4.7 with $0 disbursed. In FY 2013, other international donors have allocated about $228 million in LOTFA (Law and Order Trust Fund for Afghanistan) and $96 million in the ANA Trust Fund. Afghanistan’s own security expenditure was $2.3 billion, which all together comes to some $6 billion annual expense in the security sector. The amount makes up about 29 percent of the $20.7 billion Afghan GDP and 315 percent of the government’s $1.9 billion in revenue.

Barnett R. Rubin is director of the Afghanistan-Pakistan Regional Project and associate director at the Center on International Cooperation at New York University. He is also a nonresident fellow of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. He has taught at Yale University and Columbia University, headed the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations, and served as senior advisor to both the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan (2009-2013) and the U.N. special representative of the secretary-general for Afghanistan (2001-2002). His next book, Afghanistan: What Everyone Needs to Know, will be published by Oxford University Press in July.