The South Asia Channel
Can Afghanistan Survive September?
Despite its flaws and with a stronger commitment from all stakeholders, the National Unity Government is Afghanistan's best bet for political stability.
On Tuesday morning, April 19, the Taliban carried out the first deadly attack of their spring offensive, killing over a dozen people and wounding more than 320 when a truck full of explosives – followed by gunshots – detonated near Kabul’s 10th Directorate, which is the headquarters for security personnel tasked with protecting VIP guests. According to multiple reports, it was the deadliest attack in the city since 2011. With a series of attacks across the country promised with the announced beginning of the spring offensive on April 12, Afghanistan will continue to defend against the Taliban and, as a result, faces an uncertain future for country-wide peace and security.
As a result, Afghanistan’s prospects for political stability are gloomy. The National Unity Government (NUG) struggles to govern as it fails to deliver the promises of its founding political agreement on time. On April 9, in the midst of worries about a shock in September when the NUG agreement would expire, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visited Kabul to shore up support for the NUG, rejecting the notion that it is valid only for two years.
While marking a definite victory against the Taliban is now harder than ever, the NUG should invest its political capital in bringing long-overdue electoral reforms and constitutional amendments to win Afghan hearts. That requires bold decisions.
Few among Afghanistan’s political class and even fewer among the Afghan public are optimistic regarding the NUG’s governance. The Asia Foundation’s 2015 annual survey showed that almost 60 percent of Afghans think their country is heading in the wrong direction. Almost 70 percent reported fear for their personal safety, the highest in recent decades.
Ghani maintains better relations with Washington than his predecessor, President Hamid Karzai, likely bolstering the opinion of him in Western capitals.
However, despite the support he enjoys from the international community, his government is struggling on multiple fronts. Insecurity is on the rise and endemic corruption continues to hinder efficient governance. Economic growth is sluggish with a growth rate of about 1.9 percent in 2015.
Afghans are leaving the country. They are the second largest group by nationality to have fled to Europe — surpassed only by people fleeing Syria. 180,000 Afghans left the country in 2015.
While the NUG inherited many of these problems from President Karzai’s administration, it has nevertheless done little to improve the situation. Two key agencies dealing with security — the Ministry of Defense and the National Directorate of Security, Afghanistan’s intelligence service — are still led by caretakers since the parliament rejected two consecutive nominees for minister of defense and the head of NDS resigned recently after disagreements with the President. Meanwhile, the government has been incapable of controlling even its own supporters and representatives as a confrontation on March 22 between the First Vice President, Abdul Rashid Dostum, and a northern provincial governor, Atta Mohammad Noor, showed. The challenges facing the NUG and Afghanistan will come to a head in September when the deadline for complete implementation of the NUG’s foundational document arrives.
The political agreement brokered by Secretary Kerry that formed the current coalition government should be fully implemented by September 21, implying that as an expiration date. According to the agreement, the administration should by then have reformed electoral bodies and laws, issued new electronic national IDs, held parliamentary and district council elections, and convened the constitutional assembly to amend the constitution to create a Prime Minister position to be held by current Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah.
None of that has happened.
The parliament is serving an extended term since last June through a presidential decree until elections are held on the scheduled date of October 15. Barring change, in September two pillars of the government will serve on the basis of extra-constitutional authorities.
As the September deadline approaches, political rivals are preparing to challenge the NUG. Both former friends and foes of the NUG are discontented with its performance. Anwar-ul-Haq Ahadi, a strong supporter of President Ghani and a former finance minister, formed a new opposition party last year after claiming the government has disappointed him. Atta Mohammad Noor, the northern strongman and the backbone of Abdullah’s political campaign, told the New York Times recently that both leaders of the NUG have made a “mockery of the government” with their poor performances. Some, like Omar Daudzai, a former Afghan interior minister under President Karzai, are preparing to run in an early election while former Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who has spoken out against the incumbent administration’s positions on several issues, including the peace process, advocates for a traditional Loya Jirga to form an interim government.
None of the preconditions for replacing the current NUG with a fully constitutional government will be met by September. It is time for Afghanistan to make practical choices to survive the coming crisis.
The NUG is Afghanistan’s most reliable option for relative stability until 2019. Though formed through a political agreement, both parties to the government represent millions of Afghan voters who dared to walk to ballot boxes in the face of Taliban threats. No administration born out of a traditional Loya Jirga will have as strong a public base for legitimacy. Similarly, until electoral reforms are undertaken to ensure free and fair elections, an early vote will only deepen the crisis and undermine stability.
Now that the agreement is valid for three more years, the government should move decisively on electoral reforms and amending the constitution to resolve the source of the current crisis. Parliamentary and district council elections should be held as scheduled this October and for that election to be transparent, new national ID cards should be issued.
The constitutional amendment process should not only focus on incorporating a premiership position to replace the temporary CEO and share authorities of the president, but more broadly on correcting the deficiencies of the current constitution. The constitution, for example, recognizes seven types of elections from presidential to municipal councils and requires all of them to be held separately, a condition that is unfeasible given Afghanistan’s lack of resources and the insecurity it faces. The current constitution also fails to provide support for the growth and operation of political parties. With concerns over their ethnic and religious bases and President Karzai’s preference, less attention was paid to this in 2004 and afterwards. A more decentralized structure limiting the authorities of the president should be incorporated by directly electing governors and granting more concrete supervisory roles to the provincial and district councils to boost public accountability and responsive policy-making.
These reforms cannot happen only by the goodwill of the NUG leaders unless political pressure is exerted from the international community, but more importantly from the political camp Abdullah represents. The reforms were his team’s bargain to join the government, but he has not been able to influence the process. It now might be time for his camp to replace him with a stronger political figure. Nowhere in the text of the NUG agreement does it say the CEO and his deputies will necessarily be Abdullah Abdullah and his Vice nominees. Moreover, the agreement allows disputes regarding the ‘interpretation and implementation’ of it to be solved by both parties. Thus, it allows Abdullah’s camp to convince him to resign and instead introduce a new figure who can push the president for reforms.
However, equally important is the commitment of the president to the process. While his camp might not have as strong an interest as Abdullah’s in electoral reforms, amending the constitution and the division of power between central and local authorities was part of his electoral mandate. For that, he should remove from his inner circle those who try to ‘sabotage the process,’ including his National Security Advisor, Hanif Atmar, who has monopolized decision making at the Palace.
This solution lacks a strong constitutional and legal basis in the short term, but the time has passed where such a solution could be achieved before September. Taking these steps will help Afghanistan ensure that it is able to prevent such constitutional and electoral crises in the future and will boost the image of the NUG and optimism among Afghans.
WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP/Getty Images