Crossroads Asia

Afghanistan’s Government of National Unity: Risk and Opportunity

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Crossroads Asia

Afghanistan’s Government of National Unity: Risk and Opportunity

When it comes to the prospects for Afghanistan’s power sharing arrangement, history is not encouraging.

Afghanistan’s Government of National Unity: Risk and Opportunity
Credit: Global Panorama via Flickr

The electoral deadlock in Afghanistan that produced a unity government of questionable sustainability was no accident. Nor did it happen overnight. Long in the making, the early signs of trouble were there when former President Hamid Karzai refused to sign the parliament-approved version of the Afghan election law in early 2013, because he opposed having two international commissioners on the Afghan Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC). This was followed by a hasty and complicated appointment of nine election commissioners with close ties to palace circles.

Karzai is still considered to be a powerful political figure. The public bickering that has attended the formation of the new government cost both candidates, Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, in terms of public standing, very likely to Karzai’s benefit. Already, there are signs of nostalgia for Karzai and speculation that he will return. Certainly, he has the financial resources and informal network to make a Putin-like comeback at the end of the current government, five years from now.

The agreement to form a unity government was reached after all other options had been exhausted, with both candidates adamant that they had won the run-off election. Only the direct intervention of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry averted a major political crisis. That was a role that ideally should have been played by Karzai, but he had lost credibility as an impartial arbiter with the release of phone tapes alleging that senior officials within the Afghan independent election commission were directing and engineering the election with the help of governors, police chiefs and army commanders.

For now, Afghans have a weak unity government whose legitimacy is already questioned by one of the most powerful figures in the north, Atta Mohammad Noor, an Abdullah loyalist and powerful governor of Balkh province. Still, there is an opportunity for both Ghani and Abdullah to demonstrate leadership. Rather than trying to undermine one another, they could choose to cooperate, and work on the pressing issues that confront their country.

History is not encouraging. Power sharing in Afghanistan has generally not ended well. Examples include the power contests among the sons and grandsons of the founder of modern Afghanistan, Ahmad Shah Durrani.

In more recent times, King Zahir Shah, although a strong and capable ruler, had to share power with his cousins and later with emerging elites through the appointment of prime ministers. At one point, he went through six prime ministers in a little over seven years – this at a time when Afghanistan was far more stable, and its institutions far stronger, than today. Finally, the king’s cousin and prime minister, overthrew the monarchy through a coup and relatively non-violent white revolution.

The communists tried the same formula to accommodate the Khalq (People) and Parcham (Flag) factions within their government, with the help and mediation of envoys of the former Soviet Union and at times direct orders from the Politburo in Moscow. The result was a unity government in which the head of one faction took the post of prime minister while the head of the other became president, at least until the prime minister became too powerful and killed the president.

History repeated itself during the days of the mujahidin, when the prime minister, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, was often at odds with the president, Burhanuddin Rabbani. This time, the squabbles erupted into a long civil war, which killed almost 60,000 people.

To break with precedent and maintain a properly functioning unity government, national interests will need to be placed above narrow party and individual concerns.


One of the biggest obstacles for the government will be legitimacy. This will be a stick in the hands of Abdullah and his camp, who can argue that Ghani’s government has been created through agreement rather than popular vote. To combat this, Ghani will have to prove that he is an inclusive, uniting, patient and competent leader, and control his quest for power.

Under the agreement signed by the candidates Abdullah and Ghani have agreed in principle to create the post of chief executive immediately upon taking office through a presidential decree, and then convening a constitutional loya jirga (grand assembly) within two years of taking office. At this time, the Constitution would be amended, for instance to create the position of executive prime minister.

But the key question here is how the two gentlemen will share power in the interim, because both camps have promised positions of power to their supporters, a common practice in post conflict countries given the prominence of the public sector and the limited role of the private sector. The candidates now have only half of the power pie to distribute, and so any power sharing agreement and divvying up of government positions will mean that some of these promises will be unfulfilled, which could create disenchantment and perhaps lead to a third-party option.

There is also the likelihood of two parallel governments forming, with appointees having allegiance to the candidate who appointed them. Introducing reforms in this environment will be extremely difficult, unless both candidates commit to certain criteria and conditions for both appointing and removing officials.

International Experience

Unity governments are normally formed out of necessity in post-conflict, multiethnic and transitional societies where the political parties are not strong and individual ethnic leaders, warlords, and regional proxies play an important role. The formation of power sharing arrangements between Raila Odinga and Mwai Kibaki in Kenya and between Morgan Tsvangarai and Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, or else the Fatah and Hamas unity government in the Palestinian authority, are all examples. Yet unity governments are not uncommon in more advanced democracies, where there are properly functioning institutions. In these cases, coalitions are formed to pass important legislation and policy reforms.

The formation of a unity government, the convening of the loya jirga, and the changes in the form, shape and composition of the structure of governance in Afghanistan opens a unique window of opportunity for the Taliban to be integrated into mainstream politics through constitutional and legal means, giving them a chance to pursue their legitimate requests and grievances through democratic means.

However, voters will need to temper their expectations. The ability of the new government to pass needed reforms and end corruption, warlordism, inequality, and the many other political, economic and security challenges that confront Afghanistan will be constrained by the need for much greater consensus building. Overcoming those challenges will require more than a unity government; it will require a unity of purpose from all political elites in Afghanistan. There is today a strong sense of disappointment among ordinary Afghans. This can only be turned around by the formation of a strong, united and capable government.

Karzai remains a popular and powerful figure. Many are pessimistic about the sustainability of the new Afghan government. For all of his skills, Ghani has yet to show himself to be Karzai’s political equal. Experts are already speculating of an early presidential election or the formation of an interim government that would pave the way for a new election. That could again be an opportunity for Karzai to return.

Still, for now, an academic turned politician and a former foreign minister have a unique opportunity to demonstrate statesmanship and build a stable and self-sustaining nation.

Tamim Asey is a fellow at Asia Society and a Fulbright scholar at Columbia University pursuing a degree in Economic Policy management. He was also a former Government of Afghanistan official and taught at the American University of Afghanistan (AUAF).