The South Asia Channel

A Buzkashi Game for the Afghan Cabinet

Ghani, in the current political stalemate, must draw on Afghan history to accommodate competing political forces.

To go with story by Joris Fioriti In this photograph taken on March 21, 2013 Afghan horsemen compete for a veal carcass during a game of 'buzkashi' in celebration of Nowruz in northern Mazar-i Sharif, the centre of Afghanistan's New Year or Nowruz celebrations. 'Buzkashi' is Afghanistan's most traditional game during which teams of horseriders fight for their traditions and prize-money with the biggest tournament taking place annually in Mazar-i-Sharif on the occasion of Nowruz. AFP PHOTO/ SHAH Marai (Photo credit should read SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images)

The first 100 days of the Afghan Unity Government, the supposed political honeymoon period, is over. So far President Ashraf Ghani and his chief executive officer, Abdullah Abdullah, have failed to agree on a full list of cabinet nominees — the ongoing negotiation of which resembles a Buzkashi game, with each leader and their camps trying to pull and exploit the direction of power in their favor. With the previous cabinet dismissed one month after President Ghani’s inauguration, the country has been run by caretaker ministers and governors. In his last visit to Herat province to assess security situation, President Ghani dismissed all of the 15 district police chiefs and several senior government officials believed to be mostly allied to the powerful former jihadi governor, Ismail Khan.

President Ghani’s promise of radical reform and change, and the high expectation he created in his first month in office, has begun to bite. A recent poll conducted by TOLO News to mark President Ghani’s first 100 days in office found a drastic drop in his performance rating — from 59.9 percent in his first month in office to 27.5 percent on Jan. 6.

Although President Ghani has taken a remarkably different approach and leadership style to his predecessor Hamid Karzai, it is yet to be seen if he will successfully accommodate different and rival vested interests. And, it is yet to be seen whether the National Unity Government will be able to guarantee political stability in post-2014 Afghanistan.

Afghanistan’s history suggests that political stability and state survival is impossible without accommodating diverse political and social forces.

The founder of the Durrani Kingdom in the 18th century set up a network kingdom, a confederation of tribes and khanates rather than a centralized monarchy, as a model that his successors built upon. The power of Afghan rulers depended very much on maintaining the support of tribal chiefs and balancing the power equilibrium amongst them. Mountstuart Elphinstone, the first British envoy to the Durrani Court, made an interesting observation in the early 19th century, noting, “The king is in great measure dependent on the good will of the Dooranee chiefs, and is obliged to conciliate that order by bestowing on it a large portion of power and honour.”

Afghan rulers like the first two Sadozai kings, Ahmad Shah (1747-1772) and his successor, Timur Shah (1773-93), and the first Mohammadzai king, Dost Mohammad Khan (1826-38 and 1842-63), and the late Zahir Shah (1933-1973), were able to provide political stability and subsequently survive the longest because they guaranteed the balance of power and utilized the logic of a network kingdom. Others like Zaman Shah (1793-1800), Sher Ali Khan (1863-1866), and Amanullah Khan (1919-1929) paved the way for their downfalls for trying to centralize power and introduce radical reforms too hastily.

The political outcome of the 2001 Bonn Conference brought back into power the former mujahideen tanzims (military-political organizations) leaders and commanders who had assisted in temporarily defeating the Taliban and who possessed the necessary coercive organizational capacities. They came to re-assemble the Afghan state, occupying key strategic parts of the Afghan state bureaucracy and security institutions. The result was the creation of a network state, similar to the logic of a network kingdom, headed by Hamid Karzai, where the power dynamics of these ethno-regional powerbrokers and centers of power interlocked them in complex bargaining and inter-dependent relations.

In the post-2001 period, powerful regional elites like Atta Mohammad Noor, the governor of Balkh province, and Gul Agha Shirzai, the former governor of Nangarhar province, control a vast political economy of rent-seeking, essentially the powerful extorting citizens and charging for protection, taxes, and services. As the Kabul Bank case reveals, the empowered elite networks have benefitted impressively within the post-2001 system, helping them expand their political and economic capital.

These powerbrokers and network elites have deeply entrenched and intertwined political and financial interests. As such, they have every incentive to preserve the informal rules of the game  which they established to guarantee their long-term interests. As the experience of many post-conflict countries reveals, informal institutions such as rent-seeking, opportunism and corruption, and patronage are enduring and cannot easily be eliminated.

In President Ghani’s vision of radical reforms and fighting corruption, the interests of powerbrokers are threatened. Ironically, these powerbrokers include both those Ghani made pacts with during the elections, like General Rashid Dostum, the powerful ethnic Uzbek leader, and Haji Zahir, the Jabarkhel tribal leader, and those of his rival. In other words, if President Ghani pursues the widespread and radical changes as he did in his recent trip to Herat province, most of these jihadi powerbrokers will have a common interest in ensuring that Ghani’s policies fail.

Any radical attempt to undermine the status quo and the interests of current powerbrokers, mainly the jihadis, could essentially destabilize the system and lead to conflict.

No doubt, the first 100 days of the National Unity Government have been consumed by infighting over the key cabinet positions. The current stalemate is a power struggle, not just between the two camps centered around President Ghani and Abdullah, but also a power struggle within these camps over distribution of state resources and privileges — resources that could be further distributed to their networks to maintain and co-opt key embedded local leaders, district governors, and businessmen into their bargaining network. The ability of these ethno-regional powerbrokers and tribal leaders to provide privileges, positions, and bargains to their clients determines their authority, power, and legitimacy in the new government.

The delay in introducing the cabinet is a more serious challenge than President Ghani and his technocratic allies had anticipated.

Both President Ghani and Abdullah won votes by making deals with key powerbrokers who had strong ethno-regional and tribal constituencies, like General Dostum or Mohammad Mohaqiq. Impossible promises were made by both leaders, with limited resources, among too many claimants. The last three months has been consumed with both leaders trying to manage broken promises and pleasing their camps. For instance, it is believed that Mohammad Mohaqiq fought with Abdullah on either appointing the foreign affairs or interior ministers, and General Dostum insisted on one of the key security institutions.

The dilemma that President Ghani faces is how to overcome these vested interests that exert influence over the Afghan security institutions and economy while at the same time pursuing his reform policies.

For the time being, President Ghani must draw on Afghan history in prioritizing the accommodation of competing forces until he has consolidated power and positioned his technocrats in place. In the current fragile political stage, the stability of the unity government is contingent on maintaining a balance of power among the competing forces that control a significant part of the Afghan bureaucracy and economy. However, this does not mean that he should give in on what he has accomplished so far by insisting to introduce a relatively technical cabinet in order to effectively pursue his political and economic reform agenda. But reform must be gradual and must be strategically calculated. Ghani must slowly and progressively change the sources of state legitimacy from maintaining the power networks to good governance and service delivery, addressing people’s frustration with the corruption inherent in these networks’ elites. This will take time.


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. Twitter: @TSharan2

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