Afghanistan

A deal and doubts

Print edition : October 31, 2014

Afghan security personnel during an anti-Taliban operation near the border with Pakistan. Photo: Noorullah SHIRZADA/AFP

(Seated, from right) Afghan National Security Adviser Hanif Atmar and U.S. Ambassador James Cunningham after signing the security agreement that will allow U.S. troops to remain in the country beyond 2014, at the presidential palace in Kabul on September 30. Among those looking on are (from right) Second Vice-President Sarwar Danish, First Vice-President Rashid Dostum, President Ashraf Ghani and new Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah. Photo: Mohammad Ismail/REUTERS

After a flawed election process, a U.S.-brokered power-sharing deal produces a “win-win” result for both presidential candidates, Ghani and Abdullah. Meanwhile, Taliban attacks have increased.

THE AFGHAN ELECTORATE HAD TO WAIT for almost three months to know the official outcome of the final round of presidential elections held in June. Finally, as many Afghanistan watchers had predicted from the outset, a power-sharing deal between Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, the contenders for the presidency, was announced with much fanfare on September 22. The United States State Department brokered the deal behind the scenes.

Only a week earlier, Abdullah threatened that he and his supporters would not recognise the results even after the votes were audited by the Afghan Electoral Commission under international supervision. The audit, according to a 500-member observer group from the European Union, was not completely successful in separating the fraudulent ballots from the valid ones. The observer group stated in its report that the audit was conducted in an atmosphere of “high political tension” and that this had contributed to “an imperfect effort to separate fraudulent votes from clean votes”. It is, however, common knowledge among Afghans that both sides indulged in massive ballot rigging. Ghani, the former Finance Minister and a World Bank official, was ultimately named the winner but the Election Commission, under pressure from Abdullah and arm-twisting from the U.S., did not initially announce the margin of victory. But a day before Ghani’s swearing-in ceremony, the Election Commission duly certified that he had won with 55 per cent of the votes polled.

It was obvious after the second round of the elections that Ghani had more votes in his kitty than his rival. Unlike in the first round, the second round saw a huge turnout of voters in Pashtun-dominated areas and even in parts of the country under the influence of the Taliban. Ghani is a Pashtun, while Abdullah is of mixed Pashtun-Tajik parentage. Because he was a close aide to the late Tajik warlord Ahmad Shah Massoud, he was viewed as a candidate representing non-Pashtun ethnic groups. The voting trends revealed that as in previous elections Afghans had voted mainly on ethnic lines. Pashtuns, the dominant ethnic group comprising more than 40 per cent of the population, seem to have sided with Ghani. The sizeable Uzbek minority also sided with him as he had chosen Rashid Dostum, an Uzbek warlord, as his running mate. Electoral calculations could have been what motivated Ghani, known for his administrative acumen and incorruptible ways, to choose Dostum, who is known for his opportunism and venality. Ghani had once described Dostum, who is now the newly elected First Vice-President, as a “known murderer”.

The Barack Obama administration got the rival presidential candidates to announce from the same platform that they would be form a “government of national unity”. Even as arrangements were being made for the swearing-in ceremony on September 29, Abdullah once again threatened to walk out of the political arrangement the Obama administration had so carefully worked out. His camp was upset by the Election Commission’s decision to release the voting figures and the apparent refusal of the President-elect to share power equally. Dostum’s supporters had forced Abdullah’s men to vacate the offices they had occupied in anticipation of their leader occupying the number two slot in the new government. In the end, Abdullah duly showed up for the presidential inauguration and took the oath as Chief Executive Officer (CEO), a post specifically created to placate the opposition and keep the anti-Taliban forces united.

James Dobbins, until recently the U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, had recommended the formation of a coalition government based on “patronage allocation and power sharing”. The Obama administration has hailed the formation of the new government as an important step for the “unity and increased stability of the country”. However, Ghani has reasons to be unhappy with the turn of events. He has virtually been forced to share power with the defeated candidate: Abdullah is a de facto Prime Minister. Under the terms of the power-sharing agreement, the CEO will have substantial powers. The Afghan Constitution, framed under U.S. guidance gives the President strong executive powers. Ghani has said that he intends to rule with a firm hand.

The agreement the U.S. hammered out states that the CEO will remain subservient to the President but, given the recent history of personal animosity between the two sides and Abdullah’s belief that the elections were stolen from him, the new government could face an identity crisis. Abdullah had accused Ghani’s campaign team of indulging in “industrial-scale fraud” during the second round of elections. Abdullah wants the Ministers in the new Cabinet to report to the CEO, while Ghani has been insisting that the Afghan Constitution bestows that authority on the President. Ghani has been stressing that he will not allow the creation of a “two-headed” government on his watch. It will also be for the first time that the designation of a CEO has been given to a de facto Prime Minister. So far, CEOs have only figured in business enterprises, not governments.

The agreement also stipulates that the “runner-up” be accorded “responsibilities, authority and honour” and the status of “an ally of the national unity government” instead of Leader of the Opposition. The election process, which was itself flawed, has now produced a “win-win” result for both candidates. Any hopes of democracy taking root in Afghanistan has received yet another setback as the opposition has now been co-opted into the government. Many Afghans, who actually cast their votes defying the Taliban, may now be asking why they risked their lives in what has turned out to be a meaningless election.

However, the U.S. is satisfied with the outcome as both Ghani and Abdullah, unlike former President Hamid Karzai, have always said that they are in favour of the continued presence of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. And on September 30, the new President signed a new security agreement with the U.S. that allows around 10,000 U.S. troops to stay beyond 2014. Karzai, despite enormous pressure being brought on him, had refused to sign the U.S.-Afghanistan Bilateral Security Agreement that would have allowed this. Karzai had blamed the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) for the deaths of thousands of innocent Afghan civilians since the occupation. In one of his last speeches before demitting office, he repeated his criticism of the U.S. role in his country and said that it had become detrimental to the peace process. Karzai was also scathing in his criticism of the role Pakistan is playing in Afghanistan. He said that the Pakistani security establishment was covertly helping sections of the Afghan Taliban and sabotaging prospects of a peaceful resolution of the conflict in his country. In his speech at the inauguration, however, Karzai said that he had realised his dream of handing over power to a successor in a democratic way.

Taliban on the rampage

In the last six months after the bulk of the U.S.-dominated ISAF was withdrawn, Taliban attacks have increased—more than 700, according to reports—and become more brazen. The U.S.-trained Afghan army and security services have borne the brunt of the casualties. More than 2,500 soldiers and policemen have been killed this year alone. After the ISAF vacated areas such as Helmand, the Taliban was quick to take control. After the new security agreement was signed, the Taliban escalated its attacks on Afghan forces. “By signing the agreement, the status of the Kabul administration, in particular the status of soldiers and police is clear,” the Taliban said in a statement. “They are working in the interests of others. And their killing is important.” A U.S. National Intelligence Estimate released late last year predicted that the Taliban would increase its influence even if the U.S. troop presence continued in Afghanistan after 2015. Pakistan had initially harboured reservations about the security pact but welcomed it after Washington assured Islamabad that the foreign troops would be used only for internal security operations. Pakistan was also worried about the prospects of the long-term presence of the U.S. forces in Afghanistan and the establishment of permanent U.S. military bases.

Indian stand

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his visit to the U.S. said that U.S. troops should not withdraw from Afghanistan. India has invested over $2 billion in Afghanistan and has built close security ties with Kabul. New Delhi would have preferred Abdullah to be running the government but Ghani too has good relations with the Indian political establishment.

The government in Kabul is on the verge of bankruptcy and does not even have enough money to pay the wages of its employees. With a government of its choice in place now, the West will release its purse strings and once again start disbursing aid to the tune of around $8 billion. The Ghani administration is trying to show that it is serious about tackling the endemic corruption that characterised the Karzai administration. Ghani has ordered the reopening of the inquiry into the collapse of the Kabul Bank. The bank had run a multimillion-dollar Ponzi scheme, which defrauded thousands of Afghan citizens. Close relatives of Karzai and other prominent figures in the former government are allegedly involved in the scam. John Sopko, the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, recently stated that the U.S. had in the last 13 years spent more than $104 billion in the country to create “what could become a narco-criminal state”. Afghanistan currently produces 75 per cent of the world’s illegal opium.

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