How to avoid gridlock in Afghanistan
Afghans need reassurance that the gains of the past 14 years won’t be negotiated away as part of regional deal-making.
Afghanistan’s national unity government (NUG) is turning nine months old at a time when the country is facing serious challenges on several fronts.
A sense of hope and relief that followed an inconclusive election last year, and resulted in the emergence of a unique setup led by Ashraf Ghani as president, and Abdullah Abdullah as chief executive, has given way to an uncomfortable degree of disenchantment, blame games and manipulation by domestic and regional spoilers.
The net result could end up with political gridlock that needs to be addressed immediately by responsible Afghan political leaders to prevent further deterioration in governance and public trust.
Immediate solutions solicit a renewed sense of partnership by the two leading teams on the basis of last September’s political accord that put an end to the election crisis.
Although the two leaders’ relationship is cordial and they are able to discuss issues, especially when tensions rise, it lacks sufficient follow-through to conduct strategic planning and coordination.
Consequently, their teams have minimal contact to draft meaningful reform-oriented policies.
It was expected that the new unity government would rally around a shared agenda aiming for long-awaited reforms (including electoral system reforms) and good governance, reset relations with the donor community, manage public expectations through targeted economic stimulus initiatives, and provide unconditional support to Afghan security forces. Its record is chequered at best.
Many Afghans now believe that the government should have addressed immediate domestic concerns first, and consolidated the grip of the unity government through teamwork and shared strategising, before engaging in high-wire foreign policy manoeuvres, highlighted by a complex peace initiative through Pakistan.
Not having prioritised accordingly may have contributed to a certain degree to loss of momentum at a critical time.
Many Afghans now believe that the government should have addressed immediate domestic concerns first, and consolidated the grip of the unity government through teamwork and shared strategising, before engaging in high-wire foreign policy manoeuvres…
Geo-strategy of war
Despite bold efforts by Ghani to reach out to the Taliban via a diplomatic gambit involving Islamabad, Beijing, and Riyadh, the Taliban militia has shown little desire to engage meaningfully on the political front thus far.
Instead, the movement has taken advantage of the Afghan overture to score military and political points.
While there are unconfirmed reports of secret talks, co-sponsored by China and Pakistan, involving Afghan envoys and members of Taliban’s Quetta Shura – which is seen by some observers as a positive development – there are others who are determined to carry on with their armed struggle in an environment that is increasingly tested by well-endowed ISIL feelers.
Whether the Taliban’s aim to escalate violence and attempt to make inroads into new territories in northern and western Afghanistan are part of political posturing or part of rifts between internal peaceniks and rebellious commanders, remains an open question, but what worries the Afghan population more than any other factor, is that the NUG – despite initiatives by Abdullah’s side – has yet to develop a joint strategy on how to deal with war and peace issues, as well as other key national priorities in a coherent fashion.
Several procedural faux pas over the past few months, including a controversial Afghanistan-Pakistan memorandum of understanding between intelligence services, lacked appropriate consultation and adequate follow-up, resulting in a strong political and public backlash that is still simmering.
The arrival of Pakistani civilians and armed gangs, including many Central Asian militants and their families, displaced by military operations in the tribal belt, has added to Afghan concerns. Meanwhile, thousands of Afghan refugee families have been expelled and forced back to Afghanistan with little or no prior notice or assistance.
Afghans have confidence in their national security forces, but need reassurance that the overall gains of the past 14 years will not be negotiated away as part of regional deal-making and political expediency.
Unlike rumours spread by doomsayers, the Afghan economy is not in free fall mode, but rather stagnant and unimpressive. It is partly due to the inheritance left behind from the previous regime, highlighted by corruption and waste, but also due to lacklustre investment and private sector transactions caused by three factors:
- The exit of foreign forces, which saw the end of thousands of logistics, security, construction and other service contracts.
- Reduction in aid and foreign funding subject to new criteria and conditions.
- Political toxicity and the psychology of threat perception.
The outcome has caused a loss in confidence, growing unemployment, rising criminality and, in some cases, a penchant by some to leave the country.
Instead of hyping expectations through unrealistic promises and glossy presentations, the government needs to manage expectations, and be honest about the unsustainability of economic growth and revenues in the near term. Afghans have to be told that the last decade was an exception that may never repeat itself.
More urgently, both teams need to come up with a joint priority work agenda, agree on a plan of action, and delegate to the relevant institutions to execute in an accountable manner.
Role of governance and institutions
There are many lessons to be drawn from the past nine months in terms of leadership, management, execution and lack of institutional trust.
It took almost eight months to agree on a cabinet of ministers. Governance is hurting, and institutions are only now finding the right footing. The president and chief executive need to address weak institutional leadership, endemic corruption, lack of timely reform and public demand for critical services.
Although Ghani has banked on a 100-day plan to re-energise state agencies, a prolonged period of stagnation and loss of momentum now necessitates a much more vigorous plan to connect the dots within and outside government structures.
Recent action to prosecute mid-level corrupt officials has been welcomed by the public, but political will is still lacking in regard to pending investigations of well-connected higher-ups.
The most important factor, teamwork – a hallmark of a successful unity government – is less than satisfactory. Unless the two sides agree to break the electoral and psychological logjams that prevent effective teamwork, government functionality and effectiveness will continue to suffer.
All deliberations and strategic decisions need input from both sides (not just one) for reaching a consensus that can take the best interests of the country into account, and avoid unnecessary mishaps or political wrangling.
More importantly, the spread of insecurity and weakness in governance can further exacerbate the situation and open the door to more conspiracy theories by giving spoilers carte blanche to muddy political waters. If this situation is allowed to continue no one wins; more importantly, Afghanistan loses. This outcome has to be averted at all cost.
Omar Samad is a former Afghan Ambassador to France and Canada, and currently works as an adviser to Afghanistan’s chief executive.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.