Afghanistan’s bubble of optimism bursts

The Asia Foundation’s annual survey on the perceptions of the Afghan people this year showed a large drop of confidence in their government. Despite years of deteriorating security, Afghans had demonstrated greater than expected confidence in their governing institutions and their future. This year the optimism bubble has finally burst.    

The reasons for this drop are hardly surprising. Afghanistan’s post-Karzai “national unity” government has overseen catastrophes like the taking of Kunduz, scandals like the recent decision—quickly reversed—to allow one of the masterminds of the $900 million Kabul bank embezzlement to run a property development scheme on behalf of the government (while still serving his sentence), deteriorating security and economic collapse. A government facing a determined armed enemy has no confirmed minister of defense; a government pledged to fight corruption and implement the rule of law has no attorney general. The presidential palace projects dysfunction and division.

{mosads}Power-sharing arrangements do not have a good track record in Afghanistan. In 1992, the failure of a power-sharing government led to civil war and the rise of the Taliban. The current governing arrangement, brokered by the United States, prevented a possible breakdown of order but at the expense of democratic legitimacy. The main element of this government’s legitimacy is continued U.S. support. 

The political deal that created this government is set to expire in September 2016. Under the terms of that deal, the government was supposed to implement electoral reforms and hold district council, provincial council, and parliamentary elections to allow a constitutional convention (Constitutional Loya Jirga) to be convened. The reform process has stalled, the current term of parliament has expired without new elections being held, and district boundaries have never been drawn. As the September date draws closer without any hope of the terms of the political deal being implemented as designed, discussions among the political class in Kabul are increasingly turned towards alternative means of securing political order.

So far those discussions have focused on two alternatives: holding early presidential elections in the hopes that a single figure with authority might emerge, and holding a “traditional” Loya Jirga—in other words a representative national assembly but not one that is convened according to the explicit conditions in the constitution. Neither solution is optimal. Even if president Ghani decided—against his own interests—to hold early elections, given the lack of institutional reforms and the deterioration of security it is not clear that this election would yield a clearer result than the previous one. Some form of representative assembly could be convened without elections, but its lack of constitutionality would limit the authority of its decisions, or at least make them easy to question. 

This means that the only real option is for the unity government to understand that it is facing a crisis and begin acting as if it were. At a minimum, that Ghani and Abdullah have to make mutual compromises to decide on the appointment of positions and the formulation of policy. It will also require a serious strategic review of last year’s security operations and a concerted plan that takes advantage of President Obama’s extension of the U.S. military presence to reverse the battlefield momentum that now favors the Taliban. The fall of Kunduz can be directly linked to the rivalry within the national government and its failure to project a sense of strategic direction. The division within the Afghan government extends to the lowest units of administration. The good news is that Kunduz, while lost by informal militias and dysfunctional government, was regained by national forces acting in the name of the state.  

Short term economic measures to provide some stimulus, such as those suggested by our U.S. Institute of Peace colleague Bill Byrd can also be negotiated with donors. The weak economy is one of this government’s great vulnerabilities, and simply demonstrating that a plan exists and that there is a will to implement would help halt the hemorrhage of confidence. 

Political discontent with the government is rising and has no outlet. All of the various “plan B” options that are now being discussed are likely to be as unstable as the cure. The clearest solution is the most obvious one and in some ways the easiest to conjure. It requires some awareness at the top of the unity government of how dangerous the situation has become, and a demonstrable will to address the worst aspects of the crisis. If the current government team cannot fix itself, others will seek far riskier repairs to the broken machinery of government. 

Jalali is a resident scholar at the National Defense University and a former minister of the Interior of Afghanistan; Smith is the director for Afghanistan and Central Asia Programs at the United States Institute of Peace.


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