On Monday night, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani signed an order to dismiss Ahmad Zia Massoud, who was appointed as president’s special representative on reforms and good governance immediately after the agreement between Ghani and Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah’s camps to form a National Unity Government (NUG) was struck.
An ethnic Tajik and the deputy of Jamiat-e Islami, Massoud had joined Ghani’s ticket in the run-off election in 2014 and later served as an important asset for Ghani in providing ethnic balance in his appointments. After his dismissal, Massoud sharply criticized the move, stating that the president has neither the power nor the authority to remove him. He also threatened that his dismissal could move the country close to civil war. Although he is not a strong enough figure to mobilize crowds large enough to threaten the stability of the government, some believe that the firing may trigger Tajiks to mobilize around an ethnic cause. The Jamiat-e Islami party had a meeting following Massoud’s dismissal in which many of its leaders, including Abdullah and Ata Mohammad Noor, participated. Massoud’s spokesman even talked of establishing an interim government and seeking Ghani’s resignation.
As he pointed out during his press conference on April 18, Massoud had acted as a mediator between the president and the CEO for over three years, using his Tajik identity and influence to resolve face-offs between Pashtun and non-Pashtuns. He thus created some sort of balance in the NUG. His dismissal now upsets that very political balance at a time when the NUG already faces a great deal of turmoil.
The 2014 presidential elections ended in a deadlock that dragged Afghanistan to the verge of a civil war. The deadlock was broken by an agreement brokered by the United States that promised ethnic balance in the new political set-up through a power-sharing mechanism both camps had agreed upon. However, none of the major promises of that agreement has been delivered yet. One of the promises in the agreement was changing the current presidential system to a parliamentary one to allow an institutionalized participation of all ethnic groups in power. It was agreed upon that two years after the NUG’s inauguration, a national Loya Jirga should be convened to amend the Afghan constitution to allow such a change. That has yet to take place.
The promise of ethnic balance never came true, either, as Ghani and his team have continuous and relentlessly struggled to sideline major ethnic figures from the government. He recently approached Ata Mohammad Noor, the governor of northern Balk Province and a prominent Tajik who is the general chief of the Executive Council of Jamiat-e Islami, to undermine Abdullah, causing a face-off between the two. The dismissal of Massoud, deputy of Jamiat-e Islami and Ghani’s top aide in reform and good governance, caused a further imbalance in the ethnic composition of the government. General Abdul Rashid Dostum, a prominent Uzbek charismatic leader who was known as a vote-bank during the elections, has also been marginalized. He has several times complained through media that the president is neglecting him. Overall, the government composition has been ethnically heterogenized in the interest of Pashtuns, which in turn destabilizes the country politically, wearing down the social capital on which every polity relies.
Another major challenge has been former President Hamid Karzai. He peacefully handed power over to the NUG in late 2014 but his heavy presence and intervention in Afghan politics has remained a hurdle for his successor, even more so as he consolidates his position as an anti-American political figure who raises scathing criticism against the NUG and against presence of American troops in Afghanistan. Recently he called Ghani a “traitor” for allowing the U.S. to drop the “Mother of all Bombs” (MOAB), which targeted a gathering of Islamic State militias in Nangarhar, killing more than 90 of them. Karzai and his team have occasionally called the NUG illegitimate and have repeatedly supported the Taliban, undermining the NUG’s legitimacy and obstructing its struggle to govern.
In his inaugural speech, Ghani emphasized the rule of law and democratic governance, praising the peaceful transition of power from his predecessor. Three years on, his administration, however, has failed to hold parliamentary elections, a fact that severely undermines his commitment to democratic principles. Parliament’s term expired in June 2015 but elections for a new house was substituted by a presidential decree that extended the expired Parliament’s mandate until the two camps carry out electoral reforms and agree on mechanisms that could ensure the transparency and fairness of the elections.
Surprisingly, the newly assigned Independent Elections Commission announced recently that the parliamentary elections will be held with current ID cards, saying that distributing computerized national ID cards, or e-Tazkira, is costly and time-consuming. Back in 2014, it was agreed that e-Tazkira must be distributed ahead of the future elections in order to ensure that future elections are free of any fraud, and to provide a real census broken down by ethnic groups. The introduction of the e-Tazkira was one of the conditions set by Abdullah’s team in the NUG agreement. However, e-Tazkira project has stalled for political reasons. The NUG has announced several times that the process will be kicked off, but it has been delayed each time for unknown reasons.
The election budget is yet another challenge. The Afghan government doesn’t have enough budget to fund elections, while donors have conditioned their funding on major reforms that can make for transparent and fraud-free elections. Such reforms, on several occasions, have collided with the political interests of circles in the government and failed.
With no Loya Jirga convened to amend the constitution and incorporate the CEO post into the legal framework, and with Parliament working on an extended mandate, the current government set-up lacks legal definition and support. The ethno-political imbalance and ethnic heterogeneity, now symbolized by Massoud’s ouster, further compounds the situation. With a lack of political will to hold parliamentary and district council elections, and a lack of commitment to ethnically rebalance the government, the future looks grim.
Bismellah Alizada is a civil society and human rights activist, co-founder of the Youth Development Association, and a researcher and contributor to Global Voices.