Afghanistan: What Is Abdullah’s Problem?


On August 11, the Afghan National Unity Government’s Chief Executive Officer, Abdullah Abdullah had some choice words for his boss, the country’s president. Abdullah accused President Ashraf Ghani of having ignored him as a political partner, saying that he had not even been given a short meeting or discussion in months. Abdullah’s language was unprecedented and bold, even by the standards of a country whose president once publicly called a foreign author “the son of a donkey.” The words and body language used by the CEO suggest a difficult present and a rocky road ahead.

The presidential election in 2014 was riddled with fraud, the scale of which was such that the elections commission did not announce the full results. The power-sharing outcome of the elections propelled Ghani to the presidency and Abdullah to the CEO’s office, despite a constitution that does not provide for a unity government of rivals. Two years later, and the NUG can be seen more than anything else as a product of ethno-political competition constructed and deconstructed around political rivalry, political patronage, economic opportunism, and social grievances.

If the current situation continues, it has the potential to further weaken the NUG, or even destroy it altogether, since the NUG is a political marriage attempting to reconcile ethnic differences and intra-organizational cleavages. Given paralyzing rivalries waged by different groups, elite pacts, and ethnic movements, exacerbated by a lack of broad-based support and popular legitimacy, the NUG has proven extremely inefficient at addressing the public’s concerns and demands. Moreover, Ghani and Abdullah have turned a corrupt country into a “fantastically” corrupt country, as former British Prime Minister David Cameron put it in March 2016, with a deteriorating security situation and social unrest.

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Soon after its formation, the key actors within the NUG framework became bogged down in a struggle over access to state power and resources. The struggle over choosing the ministries and other senior offices such as provincial governors and police chiefs – most of which are still not filled – was an implicit attempt to form an inclusive order, but instead it only widened ethnic and political fissures. This is because both teams have demonstrated an enthusiasm for exercising influence over key ministries and security institutions. In this game of power politics, Ghani has appeared extremely adept at outmaneuvering his rivals – Abdullah’s camp – and even General Abdul Rashid Dostum, the first vice-president, both of whom have vocally expressed their grievances. Abdullah’s decry over his marginalization at the hands of his boss has its roots primarily in Ghani’s politics of exclusion of others and monopoly of power.

With these problems, and given the experiences of other countries such as Cambodia in 1993, or more recently Kenya and Zimbabwe in 2008, it is difficult to be optimistic about the NUG’s ability to rise above its differences. This unending struggle between the president and CEO has revealed that whatever else NUG might or might not be, it is truly an “amalgam of incompatibilities and complexions” with little commitment or capability to address key security, economic and political frustrations. As such, there is a very real fear that yet another tough and potentially violent chapter could be added to the political history of modern Afghanistan.

In Afghanistan, the coup of the 1978 upended the political structure, eventually culminating in a complex civil war (1992 – 2001), ethnic cleavages, and religious tensions with spillover implications for the current political arrangements. Afghanistan remains a small peripheral state that must contend with numerous “islands of power,” where influential actors at different levels compete, cooperate, and engage with one another for countless incentives. This behavior remains a consistent character of politics, with ethno-cultural differences and political grievances being manipulated, exaggerated, and intensified during political contests. Now this prospect is stronger than ever. All old foes – particularly those rallying around Ghani – who have compromised the NUG appear to be preparing for a tough confrontation in the next presidential election, due just two years from now. Given the experience the Ghani camp has been through and the pressures it has faced from the Pashtun power centers – who claim to have a historical right to monopolize the leadership – Ghani’s affiliates will find it impossible to tolerate another shared government. Ghani’s political habit of marginalizing others and appointing his allies to key strategic offices must be interpreted in light of this. Moreover, Ghani has skillfully manipulated this strategy to demonize his rivals in the eyes of their supporters by rendering them ineffectual, even while being part of the formal power structures. There are rumors that all ministers and senior officials affiliated with Ghani’s rivals are losing out to networks associated with the president’s men.

In contrast, Abdullah has shown himself to be an ineffective statesman and most of the duties that he would have been expected perform are being delegated to the president’s national security adviser. Based on information released by his communication office, Abdullah spends his days meeting with people and delegates who have only minimal relevance and influence. The CEO has also failed to come up with significant plans or programs, deliver on his election promises, or push electoral reforms, further weakening his position.

Today, Afghanistan is characterized by economic, political and security fragility, such that its survival as a democracy is at stake, with the state itself under threat. Far from addressing the issues of unfair distribution of power and resources, the manner in which political behavior and elite discourse are developed and executed has driven the nation-building project in a direction that serves to encourage communal agony. Ghani’s political behavior has serious implications for nation state-building processes and diminishes the prospects of consolidating a multi-ethnic polity. If Afghanistan’s leaders cannot understand that ethnic identities and communal grievances change in part through inclusive political processes, the prospects of Afghanistan making a successful transition to stability will remain dim.

Scientific theories and statistical evidence have demonstrated that the potential for political tensions and social unrest embodied in the form of ethno-political movements based on political rivalries rises with greater political competition waged by conflicting political actors over state power and resources. Ghani stands at a crossroads: Either address these concerns or fuel the ethno-political grievances. The survival of the Afghan state depends as much on internal stability as it does on foreign assistance and troops. If both parties fail to reach a common vision, in the absence of alternative political dialogues and inclusive infrastructures that can in part guarantee equal distribution of power and resources, ethno-politically driven dialogues and engagement will prevail. Should that happen, the implications for the already shaky foundations of the NUG will be grave indeed.

Arif Sahar is a scholar at University College London. He specializes in the political economy of state-building in post-2001 Afghanistan. Also a researcher at the University of Derby, he has been widely published in peer-reviewed academic journals, most recently in Central Asian Survey and Asian Journal of Political Science. Arif tweets @ArifSahar2 .

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