The South Asia Channel

Threats Abounding in Afghanistan

The National Unity Government is navigating a sea of power players, internal, and external threats. Ghani needs to be diligent if the government, and Afghanistan, is to survive.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani (C), Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah (R) and former president Hamid Karzai look on during a ceremony to mark the first anniversary of the death of former vice president Mohammad Qasim Fahim at the loya jirga hall in Kabul  on March 9, 2015. Former Afghan vice president Mohammad Qasim Fahim died of natural causes after a turbulent life that reflected the country's recent past. Fahim, a leader of the Tajik ethnic minority, was senior vice-president under President Hamid Karzai.  AFP PHOTO / SHAH Marai        (Photo credit should read SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images)
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani (C), Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah (R) and former president Hamid Karzai look on during a ceremony to mark the first anniversary of the death of former vice president Mohammad Qasim Fahim at the loya jirga hall in Kabul on March 9, 2015. Former Afghan vice president Mohammad Qasim Fahim died of natural causes after a turbulent life that reflected the country's recent past. Fahim, a leader of the Tajik ethnic minority, was senior vice-president under President Hamid Karzai. AFP PHOTO / SHAH Marai (Photo credit should read SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images)

After being formed by a supra-constitutional political deal, the National Unity Government (NUG) is now navigating a sea of power players who, for all intents and purposes, are attempting a comeback. And Former President Hamid Karzai seems to be in the lead.

Karzai has consistently denied that he opposes the current government. He confirmed this in an interview with the New York Times on June 15 saying he is not taking an active role in politics nor will he try to come back to power in 2019. But his moves imply otherwise.

Karzai has criticized the current government, speaking out against the controversial intelligencesharing deal between the Afghan spy agency, the National Directorate of Security, and its Pakistani counterpart, Inter-Services Intelligence, and the NUG’s inclusion of Pakistan in the peace talks with the Taliban.

He also visited Moscow by special invitation of Russian President Vladimir Putin one week after his New York Times interview, where they discussed their concerns about the advancement of the Islamic State into Afghanistan and the Middle East — discussions that are usually reserved for heads of state or foreign ministers, not former, apolitical statesmen.

That begs the question: Why would the Russian leader discuss security concerns with a retired president who has said he’s stepped away from politics and governance? The answer is simple: The enemy of my enemy is my friend.

This visit came just after the European Union and the United States extended sanctions against Russia for a further six months for violating a ceasefire deal with Ukraine. Now that Putin and Karzai have a common interest — both opposing the United States’ interference in the region — they convened together.

Karzai’s actions have not gone unnoticed by commentators and analysts inside and out of Afghanistan.

Political commentators on major news channels in Afghanistan regularly spend their time criticizing the NUG and praising the status quo under Karzai. Judging from the slant of the news networks, Karzai is the mascot of the anti-NUG bloc.

Analysts also believe that Karzai is dreaming a comeback to power. Scott Smith, director of the Afghanistan and Central Asia Program for the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), said in a discussion on June 16 that an opposition to the Ghani government is emerging and Karzai “is sort of playing an opposition role [to the current government].” Smith added that everyone in Afghanistan seems to think Karzai is playing power games.

Strong warlords like Abdul Rab Rasul Sayyaf, Ismail Khan, Atta Mohammed Noor, Gul Agha Sherzai, and others sidelined by CEO Abdullah Abdullah and Ghani are, according to Smith, “either gravitating towards [Karzai] or setting up their own poles” opportunistically hoping the NUG will collapse.

This mass is mounting as organizations like the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) and Ghani are scrutinizing ministerial contracts and exposing large amounts of embezzlement by former officials. SIGAR stated in its most recent quarterly report that around $800 million in U.S. aid money was diverted to “ghost schools.”

When all fingers were pointed to former education minister Farooq Wardag — a Karzai insider — he appeared on Kabul News TV in an interview. Instead of responding to the accusations against him, he used the old military rule: Offense is the best defense. He attacked the NUG and blamed it for “selling” Afghanistan to Pakistan and added that he will form an opposition group against the current government. Under Karzai, this critic would have been given a position to calm him, but Ghani has been strictly against such a policy, which will only let Wardag’s clout flourish.

The NUG is not only threatened by outside elements, like Karzai and sidelined warlords, but also by dissonance between Ghani and Abdullah. The two have yet to reach a consensus on forming a much needed Electoral Reform Commission and the appointment of certain cabinet ministers.

Discord also exists within their teams. The current governor of Balkh province and a prominent supporter of Abdullah, Atta Mohammad Noor, has blatantly stated that Ghani is not an elected president. And despite Noor and former rival first vice president General Abdul Rashid Dostum joining hands to launch an offensive against terrorists in the north, according to a Human Rights Watch report, Noor is arming and supporting militias in the north, militias he can use to maintain his influence in the region.

Perhaps Ali Jalali, a former Afghan interior minister, said it best at USIP: There is a tension inside the government to maintain unity and to govern effectively, and “sometimes effectiveness has been sacrificed for maintaining the unity. And that actually has been exploited by insurgents.”

While Ghani has been successful in enacting measure to reduce corruption, a tough job still lies ahead: he needs to reduce tensions within the government that are paving the way for players to make power grabs. Ghani has to be diligent and consultative if government — and Afghanistan — is to survive.

SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images

Samim Arif is a Fulbright Scholar currently working on his Master's in Journalism at Indiana University, Bloomington. He previously worked as a consultant in Afghanistan.

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