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A flawed political transition

September 24, 2014


The writer is an author and journalist.
The writer is an author and journalist.

A LAST-MINUTE power-sharing deal has averted, at least for now, a crisis that threatened Afghanistan’s political transition which is extremely critical to the conclusion of the 13-year US war in that country. Under the agreement brokered by Washington, Ashraf Ghani will be the country’s new president while Abdullah Abdullah, his rival in the bitter fight over the fraud-riddled, run-off election, is to occupy the newly created position of chief executive.

Although far from democratic, this dubious arrangement may have broken the deadlock that has been delaying the transfer of power for months. But it is still uncertain whether it can deliver much-needed political stability to the war-ravaged country. Ambiguity surrounds the role of the chief executive that does not have any legitimacy in the Afghan constitution.

Indeed, the spectacle of the two leaders apathetically sharing an embrace after signing the agreement does not give out much hope for the durability of the bizarre power-sharing formula. There was not even an exchange of greetings between the two leaders. The tension was palpable, as they did not even turn up on Sunday for a planned joint press conference.

Interestingly, there was no formal announcement of the result some 100 days after the poll; the election commission only named the next president and chief executive. In an apparent move to placate Mr Abdullah, who had been trailing in the election, not even the number of votes cast for each candidate was disclosed.

Political discord in Afghanistan could make it difficult for promises of aid to materialise.

Mr Abdullah had alleged “industrial-scale” electoral fraud that led to the complete auditing of votes. But that too failed to break the impasse. An adjustment was forced by the Obama administration under the threat of stopping all aid to Afghanistan.

Surely neither pretender had any choice. Further impasse meant a new civil war. However controversial it may be, the accord has completed the first democratic transfer of power in the country’s history.

Although the new power structure requires the rewriting of the constitution, it is left to the president to delegate powers to the chief executive through a presidential decree. This arrangement is to be valid for two years. It certainly can’t get more intricate.

While the president remains all-powerful, responsible for making all strategic government decisions, the chief executive will head a new council of ministers, a position almost similar to that of a prime minister. It remains to be seen how this concoction works in an atmosphere of hostility.

Indeed, the democratic transfer of power has been the most important of the three transitions including the security and economic transitions, to be completed before the withdrawal of the US-led combat forces by the end of the year.

One can only hope that the two challengers will be able to mend fences to make this critical transition work. Despite their differences they share a common interest in maintaining the unity of Afghanistan.

The prolonged electoral battle has affected the process of economic transition and emboldened the Afghan Taliban. Having failed to disrupt the poll, the insurgent group has stepped up attacks on coalition forces killing dozens of foreign and Afghan troops in the summer offensive. In fact, for the first time since the war in Vietnam, a US army general was killed in an overseas conflict.

Surely, the rising Taliban violence underscores the serious security challenges confronted by the new administration as the US-led coalition forces end their 13-year combat operation in Afghanistan. What is more worrisome is that the insurgents have widened their operation particularly in the region where the security transition has been completed, taxing the Afghan security forces.

For the US, the political transition has finally cleared the way for the bilateral security agreement allowing its residual forces to stay in Afghanistan beyond 2014. Both the leaders are committed to signing the accord. The presence of even a small number of foreign troops is essential to boosting the morale of the Afghan forces assuming complete combat responsibility. Only a small number of Afghan military men are trained enough to fight the insurgents on their own.

Another major challenge for the new Afghan administration is the economic transition, which is directly linked with political stability. The fragile Afghan economy has further suffered because of the protracted election dispute. Political uncertainty has shaken business confidence and caused an increase in unemployment.

Afghanistan is in urgent need of emergency financing from Western donors. The US and other Western allies have pledged billions of dollars in military and economic aid for the next few years, but political discord could make it difficult for their promises to materialise.

The transfer of power to the new administration also marks the end of the 13-year rule of President Hamid Karzai. His exit results in a sigh of relief by Washington for which the controversial Afghan leader had become a liability. Their relations had hit a new low over the last few years especially after the outgoing Afghan president refused to sign the bilateral security agreement.

Mr Karzai’s future relevance in Afghan politics, however, remains unclear. His position has become more controversial after Mr Abdullah accused him of being directly involved in the election fraud. Nevertheless, his political influence cannot be underestimated.

A successful political transition is not only important for the future stability of Afghanistan, but also for regional security. Failure on the part of the Afghan national unity government would bring disaster to the entire region. The latest development in Afghanistan will, of course, have the most direct bearing on Pakistan.

It is hoped that a new administration in Kabul will open up a new window of opportunity for Pakistan and Afghanistan to improve their relations. The security of the two countries has never been so intertwined as it is now with the drawing down of the coalition forces. Growing instability across the border will have serious implications for Pakistan’s internal security raising the cost of its counterterrorism efforts.

The writer is an author and journalist.

Twitter: @hidhussain

Published in Dawn, September 24th, 2014