Afghanistan’s April and June 2014 presidential elections did not produce a clear winner, which is disappointing for the new democracy. After months of formidable political impasse, both candidates, Dr. Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai (a former finance minister and World Bank executive), and Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, (a former foreign minister), came up with a political settlement to equally share power in the next government. The political deal was facilitated by the direct involvement of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and the U.N. mission in Kabul. According to the new deal, both candidates will share power regardless of the election results and irregularities. Ghani will be Afghanistan’s next president and Abdullah will work as chief executive officer, a new post without precedence or constitutional support.
Afghanistan’s independent political elites and media are distinctly divided in their analysis of the new political deal. For instance, the investigative Hasht-e- Sobh Daily described the new settlement as “a quietness before the beginning of an interminable storm.” The more liberal and government-backed Enis Daily described it as “the best alternative” available at the time.
Considering the polarized views about the election and formation of the unity government, there are three serious challenges facing the new government.
To begin with, it will struggle with the question of legitimacy from the very first day of taking political power. Obviously, the new government is not the embodiment and reflection of the election, which was held due to the tremendous dedication and financial support of the Afghan people and their international allies. The new arrangement is highly political and secretive, agreed with minimal input from ordinary Afghan citizens. According to the terms of the political deal, the two candidates and the Independent Elections Commission of Afghanistan (IEC) committed to withholding the results of the election after the international recounting, auditing and monitoring of the votes were completed. The complete silence and perseverance on the part of the Afghan people is understandable given the massive economic and employment costs the elections have already imposed on them. However, that silence should not be construed as consent to the outcome of the elections, or the political settlement. For many Afghans, this election was an exception to the bloody and turbulent political history of their country. They voted to change the tragic cycle of violence and their country’s course. If the new government is seeking legitimacy and the ability to serve out its full five-year term, there is serious need to regain popular acceptance through injecting accountability and efficiency into the public administration and reviving economic activities.
The second challenge to the arrangement is the ambiguity surrounding the interactions between the newly created chief executive officer and the president. Afghan journalists and social media activists have already expressed ambivalence about whether to call Ghani the “elected president” or simply president – Hamid Karzai was always called the elected president of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. General Atta Mohammad Noor, the powerful governor of the Northern Balkh province and a key ally to Abdullah Abdullah, categorically rejected the use of the word “elected” for the new president, saying that he “received the post through a political deal not election,” which is both highly disturbing given the costs of the election and raises alarm about the fate of the shaky deal.
For the last 13 years, Afghanistan was ruled by a centralized presidential system with political power and decision-making densely centered on Kabul and the presidential office. The current constitution, ratified in 2004, grants extensive powers to the president, who is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces and the head of both state and government; with the ability to appoint, terminate and retire all civil and military servants and negotiate foreign treaties and conventions. In view of the current power sharing deal and the creation of the new post, it is not clear how the constitutional authority of the president will be shared, given the legal vacuum in which the chief executive officer will exercise power.
If the president and chief executive officer cannot develop a strong team dynamic and a spirit of cooperation and understanding, the country will experience setbacks whenever the two engage in disputes.
The last and foremost challenge to the new government is the redefinition of Afghanistan’s foreign policy. Afghanistan is entirely dependent upon foreign income, in the form of financial aid channeled to the country by other states and institutions. Over the last two years, the country has experienced a ruptured and highly unproductive foreign policy, including frequent confrontation with its strategic ally, the U.S. The outgoing president, Hamid Karzai, refused to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the U.S., even after a loya jirga approved it, arguing that the U.S. was not serious about contributing to peace and the stabilization process. In his farewell speech, Karzai angrily lashed out at the U.S. and NATO allies for their failure and indecisiveness in stabilizing Afghanistan – comments that the U.S. Embassy in Kabul quickly rejected as “uncalled for and… a disservice” to the sacrifices of more than 2,000 uniformed Americans killed in Afghanistan since 2001.
The new government could choose to understate the current vulnerability of Afghanistan’s foreign relationships with its allies, including the U.S., or simply ignore it. But the cost of doing so would be extremely high. Based on the ongoing military transition timeline, NATO will withdraw all combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, while the U.S. will be allowed to maintain a force of up to 10,000. The government is projected to maintain a security force of around 350,000, which number includes military, police and intelligence personnel. If the acrimonious foreign relationship continues, with the new government failing to sign the bilateral security agreement (BSA), it will have immediate implications for the promised financial aid to Afghanistan’s armed forces and development projects. As the U.S. and NATO have stated repeatedly, they cannot operate in Afghanistan without adequate legal and political support. And that in turn would have dire implications for this fragile country.
Ali Reza Sarwar is a Fulbright Graduate Fellow, Texas A&M University, Bush School of Government and Public Service.