Afghanistan’s national unity government (NUG) is struggling to avoid deadlock while facing serious challenges on several fronts. Afghans are looking for reassurance that the gains of the past 14 years won’t be negotiated away as a result of political expediency and regional deal-making.
Nine months ago, there was a sense of hope and relief after a unique form of government was set up with Ashraf Ghani as president and Abdullah Abdullah as chief executive. There is now an uncomfortable degree of disenchantment, with the polls indicating public satisfaction has dropped below 50 percent. The two leaders’ relationship is cordial and they are able to discuss issues, especially when tensions rise, but their teams have minimal contact. Until the two sides break the electoral and psychological barriers preventing effective teamwork, the government’s functionality and effectiveness will continue to suffer.
The expectation that the new government would rally around a shared agenda has not been realized, disappointing the many who hoped the unity government would agree on a strategy to deal first with immediate domestic concerns before engaging in high-wire foreign policy manoeuvres. The domestic agenda includes long-awaited reforms including electoral system reforms, good governance, a reset in relations with the donor community, targeted economic stimulus initiatives, and unconditional support to the Afghan security forces. The public has welcomed recent action to prosecute mid-level officials for corruption, but the political will is still lacking to pursue pending investigations of well-connected higher-ups.
Not having prioritised may have contributed to a certain degree to the government losing momentum at a critical time. In addition, it took almost eight months to agree on a cabinet of ministers with institutions only now finding their footing. Ghani had banked on a 100-day plan to re-energise state agencies, but the prolonged period of political deadlock now necessitates a much more vigorous effort to connect the dots between government structures and with those outside.
The Afghan economy is not in free fall mode, as some doomsayers would have one believe. But its performance has been unimpressive. This is partly due to the inheritance left by the previous regime, which was rife with corruption and waste. But it is also due to lackluster economic activity and investment, for which there are at least three causes. One has been the exit of foreign forces – which peaked at around 150,000 and is now in the range of 20,000 – which saw the termination of thousands of contracts for logistics, security, construction and other services. Another has been the reduction in aid and foreign funding now subject to more stringent conditions. Third has been the political turmoil in government and worry about its capacity to deal with security threats. The outcome has been a decline in economic confidence, growing unemployment, rising criminality and, in some cases, the departure abroad of people the country cannot afford to lose.
The government has to be more honest with the people. Instead of hyping an unrealistic future through excessive promises and glossy presentations on the economic outlook, the government should be managing expectations, pointing out that the economic growth experienced over the last decade was due to exceptional circumstances which will not be repeated, and developing a national work agenda and plan of action which can be delegated to the relevant institutions to execute in an accountable manner.
On the security front, Ghani has made bold efforts to reach out to the Taliban via a diplomatic gambit involving Islamabad, Beijing, and Riyadh. But thus far the Taliban has shown little desire to engage in any meaningful political negotiations. Instead, the movement has taken advantage of the government’s overtures to make political and military gains. There are unconfirmed reports that Pakistan and China have been brokering secret talks between Afghan envoys and members of the Quetta Shura, top Taliban leaders long based in Quetta just across the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in Baluchistan. This has been seen by some observers as a positive development, but there are clearly other Taliban determined to carry on with the armed struggle – in an environment that includes well-endowed feelers from ISIL.
It remains an open question whether the Taliban’s escalation of violence and attempts to make territorial inroads into northern and western Afghanistan are aimed at strengthening the Taliban’s political hand or reflect rifts within the movement between those interested in peace and rebellious commanders. What worries the Afghan people is that the national unity government has yet to develop an agreed strategy on how to deal coherently with war and peace issues, despite the Abdullah side’s urgings. Over the past few months, the government has taken several false steps, the most egregious being the recent conclusion of a memorandum of understanding between the Afghan and Pakistani intelligence services on “intelligence sharing and complementary and coordinated intelligence operations” without appropriate consultation with the office of the chief executive and other relevant agencies. The government has since agreed to review the matter, but the strong political and public backlash is still simmering.
Meanwhile, Afghanistan has been burdened with new security concerns with the arrival of thousands of Afghan refugee families expelled from Pakistan with little or no prior notice, along with Pakistani civilians and armed gangs, including many Central Asian militants and their families, displaced by Pakistani military operations in the tribal belt.
If the national unity government doesn’t soon start working by consensus in the best interests of the country, neither side will win. More importantly, Afghanistan will lose.
The feature image is of a meeting at Camp David on 23 March 2015 between Afghan leaders and the US secretaries of state and defense. From left to right: Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, President Ashraf Ghani, US Secretary of State John Kerry, and US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter.