The South Asia Channel

Afghanistan on the Brink, Part 2

The fracturing of Afghanistan’s body politic looms. Can anyone stop it?

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Supporters of Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah shout slogans during a demonstration in Kabul on June 27, 2014. Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah led thousands of demonstrators at a noisy rally through Kabul on June 27, upping the stakes in his protest against alleged election fraud that has triggered a political crisis. Abdullah has vowed to reject the election result, saying he was the victim of massive ballot-box stuffing in the June 14 election with vote counting reportedly putting him far behind his poll rival Ashraf Ghani. AFP PHOTO/SHAH Marai (Photo credit should read SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images)

The following is the second in a two-part series by Ioannis Koskinas, a Senior Fellow at New America, assessing the risks to the Afghan state. In the first part of the series, Koskinas examined the real but constrained military threat to the Afghan government. This second part focuses on the risk of a political meltdown.

While attention focuses on renewed military threats to Afghanistan, the National Unity Government’s (NUG) political failures, often complicated by failing U.S. foreign-policy initiatives, pose a far greater threat to the country’s stability than the worsening security conditions. In the 18 months since the U.S.-brokered power sharing agreement that created the NUG came into effect, neither the Taliban nor the Islamic State (IS) have transformed into an existential threat to the Afghan central government. But, the NUG’s inability to deliver on its reform promises, waning political support for its national agenda, and an increasingly naïve American approach to Kabul have placed Afghanistan on a path towards political meltdown.

To dissect this potentially catastrophic situation, it is important to consider how poor a hand the NUG was dealt.

President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah inherited a government already in trouble. Afghanistan’s economic growth rate fell from a record-high 14.4 percent in 2012 to 1.3 percent in 2014. Although it is still too early to assess the extent of the damage from this precipitous drop off, the CIA World Factbook notes that the withdrawal of NATO coalition forces “negatively affected economic growth.” More specifically, the services sector, fueled largely by the massive international presence, accounted for over half of Afghanistan’s GDP in 2012.

A 2013 World Bank report suggested that, in addition to the direct economic impact on the services sector, “increased uncertainty stemming from the political and security transition” and “violence, economic crime, and systemic corruption” have also contributed to the downturn.

The NUG was able to increase domestic revenue in 2015, but a recent study by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency highlighted that, down the road, a “weak fiscal regime limit[s] the NUG’s ability to collect tax revenue and provide essential public services and goods.” Additionally, in the NUG’s first year, Ghani and Abdullah had to deal with a record-high number of civilian casualties and a staggering, 28 percent increase in casualties within the Afghan National Security Forces. Combined, economic and security challenges have forced Afghans to flee the country at such a rate that the passport department cannot print documents fast enough.

While it is easy to place a large part of the blame for the poor state of affairs on former President Hamid Karzai, many of the NUG’s troubles have been caused by Washington’s lackadaisical attitude towards it over the past 18 months. The sharing of power between two bitter foes during the election process was an ambitious undertaking, sponsored and forced upon Afghanistan by Washington.

More damaging, however, is the fact that the United States and the United Nations have done little as co-signatories and guarantors of the NUG framework to keep Afghan leadership on track since its creation. If anything, they have been too lenient. Without attaching specific conditionality milestones to international financial support to NUG progress, the United States and other donors have inadvertently helped create the mess in which Afghanistan now finds itself. Sadly, an NUG full of energetic and bright technocrats remains paralyzed. And although President Ghani promised a number of mechanisms to revitalize an economy teetering on the brink of failure, he spends most of his time dealing with security matters and managing petty political friction.

There is no reason, for example, that it should have taken five months for the president to sign the decree that created the Electoral Reform Commission (ERC). It then took several months beyond that for the Ghani and Abdullah camps to agree on the individuals assigned to the ERC. According to an Afghanistan Analyst Network report, “the fact that [the] few members with experience or knowledge of elections are all partisan, threatens to make this into a political rather than a technical commission.”

Even when the ERC introduced a list of reforms to the president, who in turn sent them to Parliament for approval, lawmakers rejected the recommendations. Political wrangling has brought electoral reforms to a near halt. Ironically, Independent Election Commission (IEC) Chairman Ahmad Yousuf Nuristani told reporters on Jan. 18, 2016, that his team has made “all technical” preparations to ensure “fully transparent” parliamentary and district council elections on Oct. 15. The anticipated cost for holding the parliamentary elections: $67 million.

Making matters worse, the NUG continues to waste significant political capital on rapprochement with Pakistan, even though some have warned that Islamabad would not deliver the Taliban to the negotiating table or curb the violence in Afghanistan. Ghani binds his reconciliation policy to the Obama administration’s fascination with premature and imprudent peace talks with the Taliban. The fruitless political investment in rapprochement with Pakistan and the Taliban remains a black hole of wasted energy.

All of this erodes public confidence in the NUG. Allegations of incompetent and corrupt leadership and an inability to protect minority groups and journalists, combined with the failure to deliver on early promises to implement electoral reform, distribute electronic identity cards, and allocate funds to provincial governments, put great doubt in Afghans’ minds about the NUG’s ability to secure the state and govern effectively. These shortcomings are coupled with the perpetuation of a flawed justice system that not only fails to protect women but botches attempts to prosecute those responsible for crimes against them, undermining trust in the NUG’s ability to preserve the rule of law.

Politically, Ghani’s inability to retain the favor of many powerbrokers who helped him reach the top of the political food chain in 2014 is feeding the frenzy of discontent among Afghan elites. Former Ghani supporters – such as former Finance Minister Anwar ul-Haq Ahadi, former President Sibghatullah Mojaddedi, and Nangarhar strongman Hajji Zahir Qadir – have parted ways with him and become increasingly critical of the NUG.

Similarly, Atta Mohammad Noor, governor of Balkh Province and a fierce supporter of Abdullah during the 2014 presidential election, openly disapproves of the NUG. Last year, Atta told reporters, “Whatever they do is a show.” When asked about the NUG’s delivery on its promises, Atta said, “I cannot remember any successes at the moment.” Many powerful former Mujahedeen commanders from Abdullah’s native Panjshir province are angry that the NUG has given no prominent positions to Panjshiris.

In fact, Abdullah, who enjoyed the support of a vast number of former mujahedeen commanders during the elections, is unable to keep them from calling for what amounts to the NUG’s dissolution. In November, the “Jihadi Council” insisted on holding an emergency Loya Jirga (a tribal gathering empowered to alter the Afghan constitution) to form an interim government. Some of the powerful figures voicing their support for such drastic measures included former Soviet occupation-era mujahideen leaders Abdul Rab Rassoul Sayyaf, Bismullah Mohammadi, Abdul Rahim Wardak, Mohammad Yunus Qanuni, Abdul Hadi Arghandiwal, Mohammad Omar Daudzai, Mohammad Ismail Khan, and a number of prominent members of Parliament.

There is still time to salvage the NUG and set Afghanistan on a stable path to recovery. Ghani and Abdullah certainly understand that a course correction is needed. But, it seems that the two Afghan leaders lack the political capital to make the necessary adjustments. Instead of watching from the sidelines, the United States should help Afghanistan move forward by insisting that the NUG deliver on its reform promises.

The United States should not become involved in the day-to-day business of the Afghan government or infringe on its sovereignty, but it does need to make clear that U.S. investment in Afghanistan is conditional upon progress. The U.S. approach of “commitment without gratification” has not strengthened Ghani and Abdullah’s hand.

If anything, the international community has used the tactic of binding support to progress far too sparingly. For example, this year, United States and Britain halted financial support to the Afghan High Peace Council on account of organizational deficiencies. Last year, the European Union suspended funding to the Afghan government over its lack of progress on the issuance of electronic identity cards. But these measures are minor in comparison with the major political reform initiatives highlighted above. For conditionality to work, the United States must do more than nudge Kabul forward. The United States and other donors should bind sufficient financial aid to progress on key reforms that would compel the Afghan executive, judicial, and legislative branches to achieve results.

Most importantly, the United States should condition major financial assistance to the NUG upon electoral reform. Major governance, development, and security related projects should be withheld unless the NUG demonstrates concrete steps towards holding parliamentary and district council elections by this fall.

This is imperative because, according to the framework agreement that created the NUG, Chief Executive Abdullah’s term is set to expire in September of this year. Ghani has already extended the Parliament’s term by decree; if he issues another decree extending the role of the chief executive, it could be argued that the Afghan government would operate under presidential, not constitutional, authority. The United States should try to prevent this from happening at all costs. If this occurs, it could spell the beginning of the end for the NUG, with opposition groups, including former President Karzai, coming out of the woodwork and calling for a Loya Jirga, the dissolution of the NUG, and an interim government.

If the NUG’s support base splinters, various elites, regional powerbrokers, and ethnic leaders will likely battle for power. Exhausted by the conflict and already having sought to withdraw, the United States cannot be expected to rescue the government in case of such an implosion. In order to prevent such a catastrophic ending, the U.S. government must take a much more aggressive stance in pushing for reform.

SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images

Ioannis Koskinas served as a special operations officer for over 20 years. Currently, he is a Senior Fellow at New America and runs a bespoke consultancy firm that focuses on political risk mitigation strategies in frontier markets.

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