Afghanistan unity government

Raghav Sharma has contributed this article to Khaama Press. The author is an independent analyst and can be reached at

The swearing in of Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai as the new President of Afghanistan on 29 September 2014 brought the curtains down on a bitterly disputed race to the Arg (Presidential Palace). One of his first acts as President was to sign a decree appointing his principal rival Dr. Abdullah Abdullah as Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of a Government of National Unity (GNU) agreed upon to prevent the country from plunging into an abyss. With this Afghanistan completed its first, howsoever imperfect, transfer of power through the ballot. Even during the ‘decade of democracy’ (1964-1973) no Prime Minister could complete his term and one did not witness socio-political mobilization of such scale. The developments ensued in Afghanistan after elections continue to indicate a reflection of an altered socio-political landscape, particularly over the last two decades. Moreover Afghanistan stands in stark contrast to most of its neighbours such as Pakistan, which took close to six decades to realize a democratic transfer of power, with the shadow of the army still looming large; China governed by a one party system; and most of the Central Asian Republics that continue being ruled by the former communist party elites.

However this is not the first time that the country has experimented with a GNU as a mechanism for political compromise. Dr. Najibullah too, following the signing of the Geneva Accords, had under his policy of ‘national reconciliation’ unsuccessfully attempted to forge a unit government. Following the collapse of Dr. Najibullah’s government by April 1992, Islamabad tired to set up a transitional administrative authority in Kabul of the seven mujahideen parties based in Peshawar under the Peshawar Accords of 24 April 1992. The accords were a non-starter from the outset. Subsequent attempts to salvage the arrangement under the Jalalabad and Islamabad Accords in 1993, with an oath for their implementation being taken by the mujahideen leaders at Mecca in an attempt to provide religious legitimacy and deterrence failed. Apart from External interference, severe internal contradictions built into the arrangement, particularly between the office of the President and Prime Minster, fatally undermined the governments grip on power.

This latest attempt at a GNU has met with mixed reactions, with some praising this as an act of political sagacity yet others being more circumspect and raising questions over the longevity of what they see as a ‘fragile arrangement’. However few have wondered what this arrangement reveals to us about the changing dynamics of the socio-political terrain of Afghanistan? Further what is to be expected of a government comprised of elements from seemingly two ends of the political spectrum?

A senior Afghan politician, close to Dr. Abdullah, interviewed by the author in Kabul described the GNU as “a government created out of compulsion…with the intention of creating a structure for the administration of power sharing.” The opinion on the streets of the city ranged from those of the cynics who saw this as an arrangement to share spoils of office; then there were those who saw this as the only acceptable alternative to those who saw this as a welcome reprieve from the air of political and hence economic uncertainty affecting their daily lives.

Under the new arrangement the post of CEO established by decree, is to be converted into a permanent post of the Prime Minster through a constitutional amendment that would have to be initiated by a Loya Jirga. The only other time in history when the country had this post under a democratic set up was during the period of constitutional monarchy (1964-1973).

Thus the outcome of the elections has re-opened the long simmering debate not only on who is to rule but also on how such rule is to be exercised. One of the first glimpses on the topic are to be found in debates at the Constitutional Loya Jirga (CLJ) where subtle ethno-political undertones came to underpin the debate. Components of what till 2001 constituted the Harkat-i-Shamal or Movement of the North (popularly also known as the Northern Alliance) regarded the Presidential system as an overtly centralized system, incapable of reflecting on and responding to requirements of a society that traditionally operated in a de-centralized manner.

Although Hamid Karzai’s preference for a Presidential system eventually prevailed, the question was by no means settled. In his closing address at the CLJ Karzai significantly remarked: “Of course the constitution is a document that can be amended…the constitution is not the Quran. If five or ten years down the line we find that stability improves, proper political parties emerge, and we judge that a parliamentary system can function better, then a Loya Jirga can at a time of our choosing be convened to adopt a different system of government.”

The outcome of the Presidential elections has once again thrown up the question of system of government and the formation of the GNU is the first step in that direction. The fact that such changes have long been demanded by sections of the political class from the early 1990’s was indicative of the changes in the country’s socio-political landscape. Long years of conflict unsettled traditional pillars of legitimacy that had rested pre-dominantly on a mix of tribe, Islam and charisma. The constitutional pillar though present was not the strongest. Decades of conflict that had led to a displacement of the dominant Muhammadzai’s from power after nearly 200 years of rule and the enlargement of the sphere of military and political participation contributed greatly to a reconfiguration of the idea of what constituted legitimacy. The holding of elections was only seen as one among several other components that went into the forging of this idea of ‘legitimacy’.

The formation of GNU and the ensuing constitutional changes thrown up by the nature of the electoral mandate thus cannot be reduced merely to acts of political compromise. Instead these developments have to be read against the backdrop of the cataclysmic changes that the country’s socio-political dynamics have undergone.

The GNU is still in its nascent stage and its eventual success of failure will depend on several variables. To begin with the new arrangement needs to delineate with clarity a division of powers between the office of the President and Prime Minster. This would hold particularly true for appointments to key ministries as the agreement stipulates parity in appointments. Would this imply increasing size of government to accommodate their respective political constituencies and thereby compromise on governance? What would happen in event of conflict on issues of government appointments and jurisdiction of the respective offices? Also missing at the moment is what would be the role of the Afghan parliament in this reconfigured system of governance? It is imperative that as the GNU is entrenched there must be absolute legal clarity on not only division of powers between organs of government but also on the available constitutional mechanisms to resolve disputes that may arise.

Going by the country’s past history this is by no means going to be an easy task. However unlike in the 1990’s when the deadlock between President Rabbani and Prime Minister Gulubuddin Hekmatyar spiralled into deadly violence today the Afghan state apparatus is in relatively better health. Second, the political factions involved in the process are not armed on a scale like the 1990’s nor are they locked in active armed hostility; third GNU agreement is more strongly entrenched in international guarantees unlike the 1990’s; and most significantly there has been a maturing of the political debate characterized by the hue of opposing jihadi and non-jihadi leaders inhabiting the same political space as also a realization by political elites that their countrymen are in no mood to tolerate a repeat of the 1990’s. Abdullah Abdullah on eve of the formation of GNU remarked “I apologize to the nation that the election process was not completed sooner…when disagreements emerge, it is easy to resort to violence. But there are severe, damaging consequences that the nation would suffer from. The nation doesn’t deserve that.” The key stakeholders in the GNU realize the risks of being perceived as playing the spoiler, the difficulties of running a joint show notwithstanding. Finally the election outcome also should hold out a lesson for Afghanistan as it prepares now for parliamentary elections in 2015.

This brings us to the next question i.e. what are we to expect from the new administration in terms of its priorities of governance and reform? The GNU’s task at hand is extremely challenging and its ability to deal with it will be shaped in considerable measure by the electoral outcome that led to the formation of the GNU. Both sides struck the right note in the initial stages, agreeing to work together in the interest of the nation. Abdullah Abdullah’s public recognition of Ashraf Ghani as president under whom he would serve as CEO has strengthened Ghani’s legitimacy. One of Ghani’s first acts as President was to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement with the USA and the Status of Forces Agreement (BSA) with NATO that ensures a scaled down US presence in Afghanistan; provision of training to the Afghan National Security Forces and much needed air support in military operations. This was a significant move with bi-partisan support and hence not the litmus test for the GNU.

The real test for GNU begins as it gets down to the business of governance and the excruciating task of executing long over due political and administrative reforms and steering a faltering economy. How the GNU addresses these challenges will be seminal in realization of  “stability” which Ghani in his inaugural address underlined as “the fundamental goal of our national unity government.”  Notably President Ghani linked stability to good governance that in turn he asserted was key to ensuring economic development, which in turn would foster stability and security. To this end he reiterated his governments intention of combating corruption, initiating judicial reforms, establishing a system of meritocracy in government appointments-especially in the armed forces. The much-needed reforms in executive and judiciary would determine considerably the cohesion and efficiency of the Afghan state. Moreover the linkages etched out by Ghani are significant for they indicate a recognition on part of Kabul that instability is no longer confined to south-eastern provinces bordering Pakistan but is a grave challenge in provinces ringing Kabul as well as in the north-west of the country. Thus Kabul realizes it must do all it can to influence internal factors affecting insurgency, namely improving on its record of governance.

Ensuring good governance would only come through initiating reform; reviving economic growth that has slumped from a high of 14% to a low of 3% and boost the governments revenue collection. Given political compulsions that accompany such governments this is going to be an excruciating task for the GNU. How the new administration steers the country through these challenges would also determine its ability to finance its security apparatus and also keep up the morale of its armed forces who would fight to defend an order they think worthy of upholding. If the GNU achieves even moderate levels of success in executing its agenda this could in long run pitch it in a position of strength when opening negotiations with the Taliban. However extending an olive branch to the Taliban would mean negotiating a particularly trick political turf for Ghani. He would have to tread extremely cautiously given Abdullah Abdullah’s political constituency that has long shunned any engagement with the Taliban.

The sheer range and scope of issues that require attention, coupled with the nature of electoral outcome undoubtedly make the road ahead for the GNU excruciating. While political history of the country is often cited to paint bleak scenarios, yet little attention is paid to changed dynamics underpinning the socio-political landscape. The contours of Afghanistan’s future will not be determined by historical revisionism. Rather the changed socio-political realities that led to formation of the GNU ‘after the elections’ and its response to gambit of issues outlined above that would be seminal to Afghanistan’s future.


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