The Debate

Trump’s South Asia Strategy and Afghanistan’s Political Stalemate: A Way Forward

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The Debate

Trump’s South Asia Strategy and Afghanistan’s Political Stalemate: A Way Forward

Ashraf Ghani’s authoritarian tendencies have failed the Afghan people.

Trump’s South Asia Strategy and Afghanistan’s Political Stalemate: A Way Forward
Credit: Khalid Parsa

In the days and months leading up to the 2014 presidential election in Afghanistan, uncertainty abounded about the future of Afghanistan’s fledgling democracy and the gains made in different spheres with the support of our international partners. Despite the national feeling of doom and gloom, the people of Afghanistan defied security threats, turned up in great numbers, and voted in the elections for their candidates of choice. It was a spectacular manifestation of the popular desire among the Afghan people to exercise their democratic rights to vote and choose a new leader for the country.

To the dismay of millions of people who defied the odds to vote, the presidential election was tainted with massive rigging and electoral fraud in favor of presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani, which provoked unprecedented waves of civil protests in Kabul and the provinces. Ghani, a former academic and World Bank professional, who returned to Afghanistan after the collapse of Taliban, lacked a political base in the country with limited knowledge and understanding about the realities of the society. Despite his claim to have been educated and lived in the West for quite a long time, he still resorted to stoking ethnic tensions and polarization — pitting one ethnic group against another to get votes in the election.

Although the 2014 presidential election presented a unique opportunity to strengthen democratic institutions through the holding of a fair and free election, the opportunity was squandered and the election became an anathema for Afghanistan’s fledgling democracy. For the first time in more than a decade following the fall the Taliban and the formation of the new state, intergroup tensions had simmered to a boiling point and a ruinous civil conflict was once again looming large over Afghanistan.

In the wake of the rigged election and after weeks of shuttle diplomacy, a historic compromise, brokered by the former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was reached between Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, Jamiat-e Islami’s candidate for the presidential election in 2014, and Ghani to form a national unity government (NUG) to prevent Afghanistan from plunging into a civil conflict, preserve the progress and gains made with enormous amount of blood and treasure, and, most importantly, secure Afghanistan’s long-term future. During the NUG negotiations, our emphasis was consistently on a comprehensive package of reforms which included changing the highly centralized political system, overhaul of the electoral bodies, strengthening the foundation of the post-Taliban democratic polity, fighting the chronic corruption and poverty and reaching a inclusive political settlement with the reconcilable elements of the Taliban.

Ghani started to act as the constitutional president following the NUG’s inauguration, while in actual fact he is the head of the unity government, deriving his legitimacy from a power sharing agreement. It did not take long for him to renege on the NUG agreement beginning with the agreed composition of the cabinet resulting in partial shutdown of the government. In this space of time, Ghani formed 12 high level commissions at the office of the president that not only duplicate the functions of the ministries, but also overshadow it leading to undermine the constitutionally mandated institutions. He has aggressively consolidated power in three institutions namely the office of the president, the national security advisor’s office, and the ministry of finance, headed by himself and his close trusted aides.

Moreover, Ghani has cunningly used delaying tactics to postpone the undertaking of major political reforms that underpin the NUG agreement. He played divide and rule, exacerbating the ethnic tensions in an attempt to drive an edge for himself to manipulate the events to his advantage. He blatantly pressed on with the purge of the civil administration and ANDSF and appointed his own protégés in important positions of power that negatively impacted the security, economic growth and social cohesion in Afghanistan.

Despite his growing claims against patronage and patrimonialism, he manipulated the selection process for the electoral commissioners, which has attested the suspicion about Ghani’s intentions to install people who he could influence and engineer the results of the next parliamentary and presidential elections. It is widely seen as the final nail in the coffin of nascent democracy and a peaceful transition of power in 2019. So far the calls for meaningful reforms of electoral institutions have fallen on deaf ears.

Ghani has also brutally suppressed civil protests — namely the “Tabassum,” “Enlightenment” and “Uprising for Change” movements. He even authorized an order to fire on protesters last year, which took the lives of four protesters. He has restricted civil liberties, detaining journalists and civil activists, and slapped politicians who criticized his policies with travel bans, with the most recent victim being the former head of the NDS Rahmatullah Nabil. This bitter truth about Ghani’s rule was reflected in the Economist’s Democracy Index 2017, with Afghanistan ranked as one of the most authoritarian regimes in the world.

After U.S. President Donald J. Trump unveiled his strategy for South Asia in August 2017, it was hoped that Ghani would embark on a path toward more inclusive politics by shaping a broad-based consensus to prepare the grounds for the success of the new U.S. strategy. However, an emboldened Ghani resorted to politics of exclusion. In December last year, Ghani attempted to dismiss me as Balkh governor, triggering a political standoff within the NUG. The buck, however, did not stop with me. He recently fired the provincial governor for Samangan, Abdul Karim Khaddam, another senior Jamiat-e Islami leader. Despite the fierce opposition, he also decided to launch the distribution of electronic-National Identity Card based on a disputed and controversial presidential decree that deepens the ethnic tensions at a time when we need hope and unity.

President Trump’s new strategy takes a comprehensive stock of the military shortcomings in the last 16 years. However, it discounts the complexities of political realities in Afghanistan, which are as important for the success of the war as the United States shifts resources from Syria and Iraq to Afghanistan to defeat the menace of ISIS and Taliban. Let me, however, reiterate that we do not only acknowledge, but also commend Vice President Pence’s clear stance regarding the ongoing standoff over Balkh governorship.

To reciprocate it in good faith, we, in Jamiat-e Islami, always kept the doors for dialogue open and presented a 12-point comprehensive political reform agenda as stipulated in the NUG agreement to resolve the crisis as quickly as possible. The reforms we proposed will restore the balance of power that could contribute towards lasting peace and stability and the success of President Trump’s strategy for South Asia in Afghanistan. They are particularly aimed at the following:

  • Fix the dysfunctional political and administrative system and create a system of checks and balances to improve good governance and rule of law.
  • Reform of the electoral institutions to make sure elections are free and fair, with results acceptable to the people that guarantee peaceful transition of power.
  • Decentralize the system to empower the people, increase administrative efficiency, and lower the stakes so that a presidential election is no longer a race for everything versus nothing.
  • Create local ownership with people having a stake in development, governance and security through their voices and the accountability of authorities.
  • Invest in democratic institutions, which last and reinvent themselves beyond the tenure of a specific leader or President.

We fought side by side with U.S. men and women in uniform against al-Qaeda and the Taliban in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks and are grateful for U.S. support in defeating the terrorism in Afghanistan. We urge our international partners, particularly the United States, to support Afghanistan by backing the reforms that our people want rather than an individual or a small clique with narrow interests.

Unless we reform, democratize, and fix the dysfunctional and wasteful political system, neither the Afghan people nor our international partners can succeed in building a secure and peaceful country, which can bring prosperity to our people, and prevent our soil from becoming a sanctuary for international terrorism once again.

Ata Mohammad Noor is the governor of Balkh province and is chief executive of Jamiat-e Islami Afghanistan.