Afghanistan needs a Government of National Reconciliation

This new entity should give priority to negotiating peace with the Taliban and minimising corruption by the elites.

Abdullah Ghani
Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah both declared themselves president and held separate inauguration ceremonies in March [Reuters/Jonathan Ernst]

Several weeks after the historic United States-Taliban agreement in Doha, the situation in Afghanistan seems more intractable than at any time in the last 19 years. Contrary to the promises, the war continues while the hope for peace is slimming.

Disappointed in the Afghan leadership, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo slashed $1bn in aid to the country after he failed to broker a power-sharing deal between political rivals incumbent President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah. Both declared themselves president after presidential election results were announced and simultaneously held inauguration ceremonies on March 9.

In Washington, the opportunity to finally end the US’s longest war outweighs any criticism about the confusing parameters of the deal. In Kabul, some significant players, including Ghani, are only reluctantly cooperating with Zalmay Khalilzad, the US peace envoy, who is pushing to convene the intra-Afghan dialogue as soon as possible, now that the agreement’s March 10 deadline has passed.  

The initial political resistance to the Doha accords, including Ghani’s decision not to release 5,000 Taliban prisoners or to name a negotiating team, indicates that reconciling the conflicting interests of the Afghan players will not be easy. Optimistic policymakers hoped that Afghanistan’s September 2019 presidential election would deliver a legitimate president who could unify the nation around peace, ease the US military withdrawal, and lead the intra-Afghan dialogue with the Taliban.

That did not happen. Ghani’s reelection remains clouded in controversy, surrounded by doubts at the impartiality of the electoral commissions. The election conundrum continues to undermine the peace process.

So what is the solution?

The way to bring these two processes together is to create a Government of National Reconciliation (GNR) with, ideally, Ghani responsible for governance and Abdullah for the peace and reconciliation efforts. The GNR would be fundamentally different from the National Unity Government (NUG) which has run Afghanistan for the past five years.

Unlike the NUG, which had a reform agenda, the mandate of the GNR would be to focus on negotiations with the Taliban to reach a political settlement on the modalities of the Taliban’s participation in power and the type of future Afghan state. Its executive and administrative scope would be circumscribed, lessening the opportunities for the president to abuse or centralise power.

This could be done by introducing an executive prime minister whose defined and meaningful set of authorities could provide checks on the unrestrained king-style authorities of the office of president.

The GNR’s goal would essentially be to negotiate itself out of existence, not serve five years. The current parliament could continue to sit and debate, and this could even be helpful if its members took their representation role more seriously, but they would have little practical impact on the work of the GNR beyond confirming ministers. This is not so different from their current weak role.

The Afghan political class would likely resist this reduction of their prerogatives, but in the end, the government is almost entirely dependent on the international community, which funds two-thirds of the budget. A coordinated donor effort to only fund essential functions of the government while negotiations proceed would reduce the possibilities of corruption and force Afghan government officials to focus on the peace process.

The defence and interior ministries and the security agencies, still backed by Operation Resolute Support, as well as the finance ministry, would need to continue, but if there is a ceasefire even their role would become less important.

The GNR would have as its priority naming a representative team, which would ideally be comprised of younger, more politically astute Afghans who have a stake in the political future of the country, to negotiate with the Taliban’s existing team. It could also name an authoritative national reconciliation council to set the broad parameters of the government’s position. The president could be part of this council or even chair it, but his role should be to shape consensus, not dictate to it.

Within this broad structural conception, many details would have to be worked out. The record of Afghan elites in finding consensus or even thinking of the long term is hardly positive. But this proposal would structure incentives in a way that is more conducive to consensus than the questionable election of a weak president who has divided the political elite. Things have moved far beyond the realm of ideal outcomes. Too many opportunities have been squandered and we are now in the realm of last chances.

The growing desire of the international community to remove troops from Afghanistan should focus minds. Diminishing the importance and rent value of ministries and other executive positions should reduce infighting. The expected short life of the government itself should sharpen focus on a future Afghanistan that involves the reconcilable Taliban, but is not dominated by them. As intra-Afghan negotiations begin, the Taliban may even consider joining the GNR.

International impatience is driven by fatigue but also by a sense of frustration that its resources have been squandered on subsidising the squabbles of Afghan elites. Their past corruption has paradoxically given them a great deal to lose. The international community should not give them further opportunities for self-enrichment without responsibility.

They must make way for the next generation to negotiate a long-lasting political settlement with the Taliban. The international community should use its power of incentives to ensure that this is the only way forward.

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