This year’s Eid in Kabul comes after a tragic Ramadan. Nearly 1,000 Afghan civilians were killed or wounded in three separate incidents in four days. The police shot six demonstrators after a truck bomb killed nearly 150. The next day, three simultaneous explosions targeted a funeral ceremony, killing 20 and injuring dozens more. The firing at civilian demonstrators only reinforced their position to demand the resignation of key security ministers for incompetence. They named themselves the Uprising for Change. Now, more than two weeks from the onset, the movement died off as Kabul’s military police, under direct instructions from the National Security Council, raided their tents on the street in an early dark dawn. One protester was shot; another was allegedly driven over by a military vehicle.
The Uprising for Change, as they called themselves, was born out of people’s growing frustration with the National Unity Government. At the core of the movement was the legitimate anger of a frustrated generation, which sees no promising prospect for security, peace, and stability in their country under the current leadership. The movement, however, lacked strong organization in chasing its targets. In part, lack of organizational capacity and independent political voice made the movement vulnerable and exposed to various forms of manipulation from the old and resourceful mujahideen parties, as well as experienced opportunist politicians.
Nevertheless, the question is whether the risk of activism should dissuade the younger generation. The answer is no. The main question right now is not how a group of demonstrators define themselves, but rather why the government stubbornly — and constantly — refuses to talk to those demanding reforms.
Sweeping political reforms are crucial if Afghanistan is to move forward. Halfway through its legal term, Ashraf Ghani’s National Unity Government (NUG) has miserably failed against any benchmark set to gauge his performance — insecurity is widespread, the economy is stagnant, and the government has lost its support among the Afghan political class. In his government, exclusion, manipulation, and intimidation outperform principled politics and consensus building. Few people inside and even fewer outside the government believe that Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah are capable of taking Afghanistan out of the current stalemate. The country is politically polarized, militarily insecure, and rapidly derailing from its semi-democratic path, with constant crackdowns on civic demonstrations and voices of dissent.
Realistically speaking, in the absence of democratic accountability, the chances are slim for the Uprising for Change to bring about a fundamental change in how the NUG governs, because a systemic indifference in responding to the democratic demands of the populace has been institutionalized in Ghani’s government. This is an alarming situation. An already corrupt government is rapidly becoming autocratic, defying its commitment to human rights and democracy. Indeed, a government with declining commitment to democracy, regardless of its mastery of suppression, stimulates the dissident’s adhesion to radical anti-government movements. Considering the fragility of the government in Kabul, one should understand that a possible political upheaval sparked by any future uprising would fundamentally challenge the shaky foundations of Ghani’s government.
Before it gets too late, we should stop doing too little. The unity government of Ghani and Abdullah should use its remaining two-and-a-half years as the last opportunity to make far-reaching political reforms. During the last exclusive briefing of the UN Security Council on Afghanistan, Tadamichi Yamamoto, head of the UN political mission to Kabul, said that the recent months have been unusually tense in Afghanistan. He emphasized, “Without enhanced efforts by the National Unity Government to increase political inclusiveness, strengthen accountability, and improve the government’s credibility, particularly in the security sector, we are likely to face more crises in an increasingly fragile environment.”
Obviously, at this stage, the optimal strategy is to reduce the tensions between various political opposition groups and the government. Although not guaranteed, a series of meaningful reforms might produce a level of stability badly needed for saving Afghanistan at this critical juncture. The key, however, is to help Ghani understand Afghanistan’s full picture. He is marginalized and disconnected from the realities of Afghan politics by a group of avaricious ethnocentric technocrats, who see Afghanistan as a business opportunity rather than a country.
Finally, Ghani’s delusion of saving Afghanistan through a one-man army needs to be shattered. Afghanistan is an extremely complicated country with many overlapping crises. Historically, time and again, the politics of exclusion has failed so many leaders; some of them shared the same ambitions and delusions as Ghani. As the leader of a diverse, but divided country, he should understand that only democracy, accountability, and political inclusiveness could create a hopeful prospective future for millions of Afghans.
Tabish Forugh is a democracy activist and former Afghan Fulbright Graduate Scholar at New York University. He was formerly Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellow of the National Endowment for Democracy and chief of staff of Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission. He tweets @ForughTabish.