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What does 2016 hold for Afghanistan?

For what it has faced and what it continues to, the year ahead looks to be even more challenging for Afghanistan than the years gone by, and more so because of the dysfunctional Afghan politics than the security scenario as such, writes Shakti Sinha for South Asia Monitor.

Jan 2, 2016
By Shakti Sinha
 
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Kabul to inaugurate the Parliament building was followed in quick succession by a long-overdue visit by Pakistan’s army chief Raheel Sharif, who met President Ghani to publicly indicate that the derailed peace talks, would resume. In fact, Ghani was under pressure from the US, but interestingly conveyed through David Cameron, to allow this to happen.
 
Sharif’s visit was delayed by the Afghans by at least three months in view of the strong public resentment in Afghanistan about Pakistan’s dubious role in foisting the last round of talks with the Taliban allegedly blessed by the deceased Mullah Omar and the simultaneous step up of violence in Afghanistan. Beyond a point, Ghani could not refuse the Americans. It also fits in with his assessment that the road to peace in Afghanistan lies through the Pakistani army GHQ in Rawalpindi; either GHQ cooperates willingly or does it with a gun at its head.
 
The year ahead looks to be even more challenging than the years gone by, more because of dysfunctional Afghan politics than the security scenario as such.
 
The National Unity Government of Ghani and his chief executive Abdullah Abdullah has become almost dysfunctional, and not the least because the two leaders do not get along. Ghani’s leadership ability has always been in doubt; the last time he had contested the presidential elections on his own, he polled around 1%.
 
Since coming to power, he has not been able to work with the Parliament and consequently, has been unable to fill up the key positions in his cabinet, including that of the defence minister. The fall of Kunduz was symptomatic of his government’s dysfunctional performance. For months, Taliban had been gaining grounds in the districts surrounding the provincial capital of Kunduz, which has comparatively been a peaceful province in the north of Afghanistan. Despite having appointed his choice of Governor, the leadership and accountability both to Ghani and within the provincial political circles, were so poor that the police was divided, and the vastly numerically superior army did not coordinate amongst the different battalions (kandaks) so much so that one kandak went off to Mazar and another withdrew to the airport.
 
For a government named national unity which claims to provide representation to the diverse groups in Afghanistan, its leadership is perhaps the most monochromatic of all the governments that the country has seen in the past one century.  Other than token Tajik or Hazara presence here and there, the entire decision-making is Pashtun-only. Abdul Rashid Dostum, nominally the vice president of the country, has been reduced to camping in the north of Afghanistan and trying to push back a resurgent Taliban in his areas. Dr Abdullah’s stock amongst his own followers has fallen because his is seen to be going along with Ghani, and not doing enough to ensure broad representation at the top and middle-leadership of the government.
 
It would not be unfair to say that despite the impressive numbers, the Afghan army is still short of actually fighting capabilities. Only around 30% of it is in a position to fight, which they are doing heroically. However, tactically they seem to have fallen for the Taliban trap of trying to defend territory and have overstretched themselves by setting by large numbers of under-manned posts that are harder to defend. However, given good artillery and air support, they are quite capable to preventing the Taliban from trying to capture populated areas. But, they do need better leadership to avoid a repeat of the Kunduz and Helmand fiasco.
 
Going ahead, the term of the national unity government would be up by September 2016, unless the Constitution is amended. This seems a long haul since it would require the convening of a Constitutional Loya Jirga (CLJ), which is meant to be constituted with members from both the houses of parliament and heads of all provincial and district councils.
 
The term of the lower house of parliament, the Wolesi Jirga, is over but the security situation and unresolved problems with the electoral laws has prevented fresh elections; legal ambiguity surrounds the continued functioning the present Election Commission and it clearly lacks credibility to be a party to amending the Constitution, particularly on the issue of presidential versus parliamentary system of government that almost led to a breakdown of the CLJ 2003 that framed the present Constitution. The majority support then arguably was for a parliamentary system but Karzai, with his supporters like Ghani, present National Security Advisor Hanif Atmar and mujahedeen leaders like Abdul Sayyaf and backed by the then US Ambassador Khalilzad was able to use the ‘Pashtun’ card and carry the day.
 
District Council elections have never been held, so in fact, their quota of seats in the upper house of parliament (Meshrano Jirga) has been filled by presidential nomination. Only the heads of the provincial councils and part of the Meshrano Jirga is really legitimate enough for the task of amendment. This is hugely problematic, arguably more so than the security or economic transition because whatever its weaknesses in terms of its capacity, the Kabul dispensation is widely accepted as politically legitimate, at least internationally. But if its legitimacy is questioned, then in combination with its credibility issues, it is doomed.
 
Going forward, the key players are Pakistan and the Ghani-Abdullah leadership. Pakistan has stepped up its diplomatic engagement both to counteract the dismal public reputation it enjoys in Afghanistan and to confuse the Afghan political elite enough to prevent a unified Afghan position from emerging. It has tried to mend fences with the political opposition including those nominally part of the government but actually marginalised, and with Hamid Karzai.
 
Their basic position is that we (Pakistan) have made a mistake in the past, that we did not keep your sensitivities in mind and that you are all important stakeholders so we are limiting ourselves to talking to Ghani. Various opposition delegations have in fact visited Pakistan. This charm offensive includes the vocal civil society and Afghanistan fledging strategic community who have participated in different Track II initiatives. 
 
What would decide matters is the performance of the Ghani-Abdullah team. Can they improve their performance, become more inclusive, more participative, less idiosyncratic and more decisive? Can they make the army perform at its potential? Will parliamentary election be held? Would senior appointments become increasingly merit-based or would it still be about networks, about ‘my’ man versus ‘your’ man? And would they sufficient give confidence to donors to step up their financial support required for the government to deliver services adequately?
 
If this team cannot shape up, would they have the courage and wisdom to ship itself out? While not likely, it would not be impossible for sections of the security forces, supported by external forces, to carry out a coup d’état. Fascination for leaders seen as strong and no-nonsense extends to many quarters, including those propping up the government.
 
Absent any positive developments, it is quite likely that the former president, Karzai, a relatively young man with deep networks running across the country, may attempt to force the issue. He may lack the legitimacy to call for a constitutional Loya Jirga, but he can very well call for a Jirga with representatives from across the country and attempt to use it to seize the initiative – legitimacy can always be acquired ex-post.
 
Predicting the consequences of any such act, speculative at best at this period of time, would be hazardous, but it would be presumptuous to rule it out.
 
(Shakti Sinha is the head of Policy Research Group at the Bureau of Research in Industry and Economic Fundamentals (BRIEF). He can be reached at: editor@spsindia.in)

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