Interview: Bette Dam


Afghanistan has experienced the first peaceful democratic transition in its history. After disputed elections, Ashraf Ghani has become president of Afghanistan after agreeing to a deal with his defeated rival, Abdullah Abdullah, brokered by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. The resultant government of national unity creates a new executive position for Abdullah. This is a unique experiment in Afghanistan’s history, one that envisions a sharing of power between two strong leaders. While the deal has been hailed for bringing unity to a war-weary nation, there is considerable skepticism about its sustainability.

To better understand the prospects of Afghanistan’s new government, The Diplomat’s Sanjay Kumar spoke with Bette Dam, an author and journalist currently based in Kabul. She has been covering Afghanistan for the last eight years, including visits to many dangerous and remote areas. Her most recent book is a highly acclaimed biography of Afghanistan’s outgoing president, Hamid Karzai, titled A Man and His Motorcycle: How Hamid Karzai Came to Power.

What do you think about the new political arrangements in Kabul? Will they be sustainable?

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I am little skeptical. Sharing power, particularly in an unstable country like Afghanistan, is not easy. Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah personally might want the coalition to work but they are never alone. They are part of networks who want to be the most powerful. The start will be difficult but we need to give it some time to see what this unity government will be able to do for Afghanistan.

You have been reporting from Afghanistan for the last eight years. Thus you have been able to see the entire electoral process and its prelude. So how do the Afghan people feel about the formation of the government of national unity?

Afghans are actually relieved that there is at least a government again. They are happy that things will start moving now after almost half a year of political deadlock. Salaries at some of the NGOs and schools will be paid again, and contracts for work will be awarded again. The value of the currency is always a good indication in Afghanistan of what the economic sector thinks; businessmen were optimistic when John Kerry came here to intervene in the elections crisis, but when the actual unity government deal was made, the value of the currency didn’t change, which means the business sector is cautious about Afghanistan’s future.

Some political analysts have a dim view of the future of democracy in Afghanistan because of this compromise.

The 2014 elections were obviously not a good exercise for democracy. People are now much more skeptical about any future elections. It would be tough now to convince people to risk their lives and come out to vote. Their votes evaporated, as in 2009. What is also important to say is that the audit of the second round, where the international community recounted the votes, didn’t go well. The international community didn’t coordinate and prepare for it sufficiently. In Kabul they call the audit “a nice try,” but due to mismanagement the audit didn’t achieve its objectives. The good news is that the political transition happened without violence, and there has been no serious eruption of conflict. You need to give the two leaders a little bit of time to distribute powers among themselves. For the longer term, it is difficult to say now what political shape the country will take. After 13 years of international intervention, there are no strong institutions in place. Ghani has some interesting plans for the country and wants to curb corruption.

In the meantime, what I do not see is a new strategy from the West, like the United States. They demand change in Afghanistan without looking at their own role in creating the present system. What happened in the last 13 years in Afghanistan is the shared responsibility of the Afghan government and the international community. The last 13 years resulted in a corrupt government based on patronage which created a substantial part of the violence. The West is also responsible here since it intervened heavily in the situation by supporting warlords from the early days of the war. That has had an impact on the country. The West has been focusing mostly on a military strategy. It should have taken a much more political approach helping the new government find a more inclusive approach instead of enriching the elite. Ashraf Ghani wants to change this, and to do so he needs full international diplomatic support to reduce the power of governors and give qualified Afghans a chance to govern. Though Afghanistan has fallen out of the news and the West wants to leave, its most crucial time is right now.

The Taliban mocks democracy. After the formation of the coalition government, how will insurgent groups react? Will they try to exploit public disenchantment?

The Taliban have been relatively calm during the elections. The candidates were able to campaign in all parts of the country. Abdullah, who derives his support base from the mostly Tajik dominated North, was able to campaign in the south where local leaders reached out to the Taliban in the area. His groups have managed to connect with the Taliban, which is promising for future peace talks. Similarly, Ghani has a network of people. He also has links to the tribes which have connection with the eastern Taliban. I don’t know what the Taliban is going to do and what the president is going to offer them. But there is an infrastructure of connections to the Taliban, where pragmatism is apparently stronger than idealism. I think the international community should profit from this. It should have a good understanding of these networks and support them where it can. The government should also make an attempt to bring Taliban members into the fold and have better peace initiatives.

News coming from parts of southern Afghanistan suggests a concerted effort by elements of the Taliban to establish control over strategically located districts.

The Taliban are not one group. There are many factions and they indulge in personal conflict for dominance. Different tribes try to establish their supremacy by fighting with each other. Thus, the Taliban have a complicated structure. Some factions are ideologically against the government, but mostly it’s simply about power. The West has outgrown tribalism so it finds it difficult to understand what goes on in Afghanistan but it should try to understand. Only by understanding tribal fights will the West be able to get a grip on the situation here. It needs to face the real dynamics on the ground in Afghanistan and understand what to do with them to keep the country from [sliding into] civil war. In any case, the international community and the Afghan government need to decide if they want to win over the Taliban through talking or through fighting. I think only talking will work in this country.

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