Afghan unity deal ensures future conflict

KABUL, Afghanistan -- American Secretary of State John Kerry Shakes Hands With Afghan Presidential Candidates Abdullah and Ghani on August 8, 2014. U.S. State Department photo, Public Domain
KABUL, Afghanistan — American Secretary of State John Kerry with Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, then Afghan Presidential Candidates, August 8, 2014. Photo by U.S. State Department, Public Domain

September 24, 2014

As rival candidates for power in Afghanistan signed a power-sharing deal on Sunday, an understandable sigh of relief swept through the corridors of power in those countries that have expended troops and treasure in the last dozen years trying to get the central Asian nation on its feet.

In the six months since the first round of the presidential elections it looked as though the whole Afghan project might collapse into new chaos as the two main candidates, former World Bank official Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai and former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, exchanged increasingly bitter allegations of vote-rigging.

It has taken vigorous and persistent arm-twisting by United States Secretary of State John Kerry and many others to bludgeon Ghani and Abdullah to agree to a government of national unity. Under the pact, Ghani will be President and Abdullah has been given the authority to appoint a Chief Executive – essentially a Prime Minister – a job he is likely to grab himself.

However, the details of the deal contain poisonous seeds, which will pollute the new Afghan political process in coming years, and probably within months. An early indication of the troubles ahead came with Abdullah’s insistence that the results of the United Nations-supervised audit by the Independent Election Commission of the results of June’s run-off vote for the presidency not be published.

This, together with the bartering over the power-sharing deal itself, has effectively negated both the April primary election and the June run-off. Afghans turned out in their millions, and defied Taliban threats and efforts to disrupt the process, in order to have their voices heard. Ghani and Abdullah, with Kerry and other outside officials acting as handmaidens, have overridden that exercise. Their backroom deal keeps at the hub of power all the corrupt and often brutal regional warlords and dispensers of patronage who have blighted Afghan politics since the ouster of the Soviet Union a quarter of a century ago. Those familiar faces were all lined up as photos were taken at the signing ceremony in the Presidential Palace in Kabul on Sunday.

Mir-e, Afghanistan -- United States Army Sgt. Joseph Evans scans the area through while Spc. Brendon Quisenberry pulls rear security during a route reconnaissance mission near Mir-e, Afghanistan, April 4, 2007. Photo by U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Michael L. Casteel, Public Domain
Mir-e, Afghanistan — United States Army Sgt. Joseph Evans scans the area through while Spc. Brendon Quisenberry pulls rear security during a route reconnaissance mission near Mir-e, Afghanistan, April 4, 2007. Photo by U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Michael L. Casteel, Public Domain

One of the first tasks of the new administration will be to sign a security agreement with the U.S. and another with NATO. This will allow up to 15,000 foreign troops to stay in Afghanistan to provide a degree of security against the Taliban, whose insurrection has gathered ground in the months of political deadlock, and to try to create a skilled and professional Afghan national army.

That is likely to be a relatively smooth process. Far more troublesome will be the distribution of lucrative positions in the new administration to the backers of Ghani and Abdullah. If the crowds of supplicants who constantly surround Abdullah is any guide, he has seriously over-promised the rewards of victory that his supporters can expect.

This process of carving up the patronage of appointments is going to be a lengthy and potentially fraught business. One outcome of the lack of a clear, acknowledged winner of the election is that neither Ghani nor Abdullah has a mandate to overrule the other. At best, the new government of Afghanistan is going to be an exercise in opacity in which everything is negotiated and bargained behind closed and muffled doors. At worst – and this, sadly, is more likely than not – Afghanistan is going to have rival administrations or two parallel governments.

Abdullah has been promised “parity” in senior economic and security appointments. This duopoly is ingrained in the power-sharing deal with the creation of a new Council of Ministers, which will operate alongside the Cabinet. The council is to be chaired by Abdullah, who will, of course, pack its benches with those to whom he is beholden.

Who has the power or authority to decide what in the new Afghanistan is going to be a nightmare. A looming bad dream is going to be how to deal with the Taliban. Ghani is open to negotiations with the remnants of the Muslim religious fanatics who held power in Kabul from September 1996 until pushed out in the American-led assault in December 2001.

Abdullah, on the other hand, is against reconciliation with the Taliban, and they don’t like him either. Abdullah has significant backing from the Northern Alliance, a loose gathering of ethnic minority warlords that the Americans used as the main shock troops against the Taliban and their brethren Al-Qaida terrorists in 2001.

The embedding of corruption and patronage into the Afghan political system by this power sharing deal is going to do nothing to revive what is one of the poorest economies in the world. The political stalemate and uncertainties of the last six months have not only worsened the economic situation, but also revived the opium poppy industry, which had shown some signs of being contained. The prospect of a prolonged struggle for power between the Abdullah and Ghani camps, punctuated by rival tollgating, will be no encouragement for investors to get involved in Afghanistan. The exception will be the most risk-averse operations, who are usually skilled at functioning in corrupt systems.

The power-sharing agreement is little more than a temporary truce, which allows the nations involved in the intervention of the last dozen years to declare victory and go home. But this deal is so flawed, it is only a prelude to the next unhappy chapter.

Copyright © Jonathan Manthorpe 2014

Presence patrol around FOB Fenty  U.S. Army Pfc. Nicholas Peterson, team member, Troop B, 4th Squadron, 9th Cavalry Regiment, 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, of Reedsport, Ore., pulls security with his team, during a presence patrol around Forward Operating Base Fenty, Nangarhar province, Afghanistan, Aug. 22, 2013. The purpose of the early morning patrol was to check the security of Fenty's perimeter as well as engage the local population. (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Sgt. Margaret Taylor, 129th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment/RELEASED)
Forward Operating Base Fenty, Afghanistan –United States Army soldiers on a “presence patrol” in Nangarhar province on, Aug. 22, 2013. Photo by Sgt. Margaret Taylor, U.S. Army National Guard, Public domain

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