The Afghan president has more powers than a king

The Afghan constitution which gives unprecedented powers to the president is at the heart of a major crisis in Kabul.

Ashraf Ghani
President Ashraf Ghani at the 72nd UN General Assembly at the UN headquarters in New York on September 21, 2017 [Reuters/Stephanie Keith]

The dismissal of Governor Atta Muhammad Nur of Balkh province in northern Afghanistan by President Ashraf Ghani on December 18, 2017, was met with adamant defiance by the governor and his supporters. It was an unnecessary, constitutionally induced, crisis that has brought the country to the brink of yet another major conflict.

This development is also a symptom of a much deeper constitutional problem, which, if not resolved, could be a recipe for disaster in the future. 

The 2004 Afghan constitution invests the president with more powers than former Afghan kings had before the republican period. Among them is the power to appoint all government officials, political and professional, from the cabinet to the district levels.

At the same time the office of the president, at least in practice, tends to be filled only with ethnic Pashtuns. That is why candidates view the presidency as “the prize” to be won at any cost.

Hence, presidential elections have become a massive exercise in fraud. The last election conducted in 2014 was the worst by far. Following accusations of unprecedented violations, US Secretary of State John Kerry brokered, extra-constitutionally, a national unity government for Ashraf Ghani and Abdulla Abdulla to share power, averting a likely tragedy.

The exercise of presidential rights to appoint all government officials, in an ethnically divided and tribal society, is fraught with charges of monopolising power, bias and discrimination. 

Because the retention of the “prize” necessitates reliance on kinsmen, tribesmen, and cronies, it promotes politicisation of ethnolinguistic and sectarian identities, heightening tensions and insecurity.

A long history of centralisation and ethnic tensions

Afghanistan inherited this trend towards centralisation from decades of political leaders trying to personalise power and exacerbating ethnic tensions.

The political culture of “kingship”, predicated on centralisation of power in the hands of Pashtun monarchs who relied on their trusted kinsmen and tribesmen, dates back to the 1880s. Abdur Rahman Khan (1880-1901) secured the throne for himself with the help of British India, which provided him with substantial long-term subsidies of modern weapons and cash. His grandson, Shah Amanullah (1919-1929) enshrined centralism in the country’s first constitution (1923). 

In the 1930s, King Zahir Shah came to the throne and reigned with his uncles for three decades as an absolute monarch before adopting a new constitution in 1964. The new document prevented members of the royal family from holding high positions in the government. This bold attempt at constitutional monarchy was short-lived, as Zahir Shah was removed from the throne in a military coup in 1973, led by his cousin and brother-in-law, former Prime Minster Muhammad Daoud.

Daoud claimed unprecedented powers before his demise at the hands of Soviet-backed Afghan communist parties in April 1978. The communists attempted to set up centralised rule but were challenged by Western-backed anti-communist Mujahideen forces and the country plunged into civil war.

Despite the Mujahideen’s military successes, they failed to form a functioning government as in-fighting erupted. These internecine conflicts further divided the country along ethnolinguistic and sectarian cleavages.

While the war for control of Kabul was raging, in the peripheries a number of powerful regional leaders consolidated power using ethnolinguistic, tribal and sectarian affiliations. Atta Muhammad Nur, of Jamiat-e-Islami party, established himself as a Tajik leader in Balkh province during this period.

The violent takeover of the primarily Pashtun Taliban beginning in 1995 and then the bloody US invasion of 2001 consolidated ethnic and regional divisions.

A new old constitution

In removing the Taliban from power, the US-led coalition forces worked closely with the commanders of the Northern Alliance who had resisted the Taliban conquest of their territories. Nur was one of the key commanders assisting the coalition. The defeat and demise of the Taliban were celebrated widely in northern Afghanistan because it afforded them a chance to govern their local communities within a decentralised national political structure. But that was not to be.

At the Bonn Conference organised by the United Nations, the monarchic-era constitution of 1964, excluding the Chapter on the King, was adopted as the legal framework for operation of the interim and transitional governments of Afghanistan. The same constitution appears to have been tweaked by the commission for drafting a new constitution and was adopted in December 2004. The Chapter on the King seems to have been renamed the Chapter on the President, granting far broader powers to the president than the former king had.

The 2004 constitution, upon the insistence of the US and its allies, included provisions guaranteeing human rights, recognition of minorities and steps towards gender equity.

However, demands for a parliamentary system and decentralised governance put forward mainly by non-Pashtuns were ignored. In this way, the country was saddled with the most inappropriate all-powerful presidential executive structure which cannot, has not, and will not be able to deliver the many positive constitutional rights of the peoples of Afghanistan.

The 2004 constitution, like all other previous constitutions of Afghanistan, denies the peoples of Afghanistan their rights to elect their governors, mayors and district officers. It also denies them the possibility to recruit or hire their professional administrators. The right of community self-governance which could have transformed the peoples of Afghanistan from subjects to empowered citizens was not considered. Thus, abuses by Kabul-appointed strangers who lord over local communities instead of serving them are rampant.

Recruitment and hiring of civil servants, when vetted by local committees, can reduce pervasive nepotism, cronyism and corruption. It could also reduce or eliminate identity politics and bridge the trust gap between state and society. Indeed, if governors were elected, Governor Nur would have been elected by the people of Balkh province, eliminating the reason for the current crisis.

Such overbearing undemocratic centralised governance structures are unacceptable in Europe and the United States. Afghanistan’s 2004 constitution was produced under the auspices of the UN, US and EU. Sadly, since the firing of Governor Nur, some Western ambassadors in Kabul appear to support President Ghani’s decision by demanding adherence to the “rule of law”. This despite the fact that they know full well the absurdity and undemocratic nature of the law that has produced the current growing conflict in Afghanistan. 

A constitutional provision blatantly causing instability, promoting personalisation of power, nepotism, tribalism, cronyism, discrimination, politicisation of identities and a trust deficit in society should not be condoned but openly opposed by the international community.

If their desire is to enhance long-term security and stability in Afghanistan, they must help amend the constitution which, with its current provisions, breeds conflicts and contributes to a myriad of problems in struggling multi-ethnic Afghanistan. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.