Afghan regime, a two-headed donkey, comes unhinged

Developing Just Leadership

Zia Sarhadi

Dhu al-Qa'dah 29, 1437 2016-09-01

News & Analysis

by Zia Sarhadi (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 45, No. 7, Dhu al-Qa'dah, 1437)

The US-crafted Afghan regime with two rulers—a president and a chief executive—had little chance of success. It is coming unhinged amid political squabbling as the Taliban make military gains across the country.

Afghanistan’s two-year old unity government has come unhinged. There is no unity; perhaps it was not intended to create unity. After all how can a government with virtually two heads function at all, much less effectively? It has been compared to a two-headed donkey, one head at each end of the body. It was cobbled together by US Secretary of State John Kerry to mollify Abdullah Abdullah, the ambitious Northern Alliance warlord who felt deprived of his “right”to the top spot by Ashraf Ghani. The double-barrel Abdullah was asked to play second fiddle — again — by giving him the newly created post of Chief Executive while Ghani became the president following the 2014 elections.

This was a bitter pill for Abdullah to swallow; he had already served as second fiddle to the long-serving Hamid Karzai for nearly 13 years only to be deprived of the top position by Ghani’s ascension to power. Abdullah became a permanent sec-ond fiddle, a prospect he naturally does not cherish.

Under the Kerry-brokered deal, there were to be electoral reforms, parliamentary elections, and a constitutional change to establish the post of prime minister that Abdullah would occupy. These were to have been completed by this month (September 2016), but little progress has been made in the two-year period. While Abdullah’s angst may be justified at lack of progress, he and his supporters cannot escape blame either. Abdullah and Ghani have not spoken to each other for more than three months, hardly the kind of relationship conducive to a functional government.

It is not difficult to see why Ghani is in no hurry to usher in such reforms. It would render his position largely ceremonial. Given the cutthroat nature of Afghan politics where winner takes all and no prisoners are taken, Ghani has been quite mild in his dealings with others, especially the Northern Alliance warlords. He also has to contend with constant sniping from Karzai who continues to operate as if he were still the president. He harbors barely disguised ambitions of making a comeback, a la Vladimir Putin of Russia! In any case, he considers himself a senior statesman with an oversized ego and expects to be accorded the kind of respect that he thinks he deserves.

Abdullah and his supporters say he will no longer tolerate being “marginalized.” They also accuse Ghani of filling posts with his own people. How credible this allegation is needs to be examined in the context of Abdullah’s power as chief executive to veto the appointment of ministers. True, Ghani has done likewise but the fact is that this has rendered the so called unity government non-functional. In order to govern, Ghani has had to appoint people to posts, such as advisors that he trusts, that are not subject to Abdullah’s veto.

The Northern Alliance warlords are Tajiks, a minority in Afghanistan’s tribal society comprising no more than 20% of the population, yet they occupy the prepon-derance of posts in the country. They dominate the Afghan intelligence agency, for instance, and have repeatedly undermined attempts at making a peace deal with the Taliban.

This was starkly demonstrated in July 2015 when on the eve of another round of peace talks with the Taliban brokered through the good offices of Pakistan, the Afghan intelligence chief, Amrullah Saleh leaked information about the death of Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Umar. This undermined the Taliban’s position leading to their boycott of the talks. Information about Mullah Umar’s death had been shared by Pakistan in an attempt to foster trust and better relations with the Afghan government as well as the intelligence agency. The Northern Alliance warlords, however, know that any deal with the Taliban would reduce their influence in government. Saleh was forced to resign but he had dealt a blow to peace prospects.

Ghani and the Taliban are Pashtuns, Afghanistan’s majority ethnic group. While there are many Pashtun tribes, in the Afghan political system, they have historically been marginalized. The Tajiks dismiss them as country bumpkins. Afghanistan’s other minorities — the Uzbeks and Hazaras — do not enjoy as much clout or influence as the Tajiks. Afghanistan’s two official languages, Pashtu and Darri (a variant of Farsi) also reflect this. Those who consider themselves educated and upperclass prefer to speak Darri; Pashtu is considered the language of peasants even though it is more than 5,000 years old and has a rich tradition of poetry and literature.

Reality about the dysfunctional Afghan government boiled over into the public domain on August 11 when Abdullah blurted out on television that Ghani was not fit to be president. This would be considered great insubordination and under normal circumstances would have resulted in Abdullah’s dismissal but Ghani kept his cool. This appeared to have been misinterpreted by Abdullah’s supporters as a sign of weakness.

The following day (August 12) Saleh (former intelligence chief) went a step further and announced through the media that Ghani risked losing Abdullah and his supporters’ cooperation unless there were immediate reforms. There has been little cooperation from Abdullah and his cohorts for two years. In any case, such sniping in the media is hardly likely to persuade Ghani to introduce reforms to appease those bent on consigning him to oblivion. He does not agree, and Kerry seems to support him, that there is any expiry date for the unity government.

Following media sniping by Abdullah and his ambitious supporters, Ghani’s office issued a statement on August 12 rejecting allegations that the unity government had failed. Instead, it asserted that it had made “remarkable achievements.” The statement did not elaborate what kind of achievements had been made but it went on to say Abdullah’s remarks were against the “spirit of governance.”

The public spat between Ghani and Abdullah could not have come at a worse time for Afghanistan. The Taliban under their new leader Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada have struck in a number of provinces and taken control. In addition to their stronghold of Qandahar, they have also driven government forces from large parts of Helmand as well as Kunduz. There has also been another development that is of worry to the government: emergence of the takfiri group, ISIS or ISIL, that has caused havoc in Iraq and Syria.

Flushed with money donated by Arabian regimes as well as rich individuals, the takfiris have pulled a number of Taliban fighters into their ranks. They are ensconced in Nangarhar province where the Afghan army, backed by US forces, is battling them. Some observers have opined that the takfiris have received tacit support from the US (it is well known that both in Syria and Iraq, the US and its allies have provided them financial, military, and logistical support).

The plan seems to be to weaken the Taliban ranks and exert pressure on them to come to the negotiating table with the US-installed Afghan government. Further, the takfiris also provide justification for the US to continue its troop presence in Afghanistan long past President Barack Obama’s announced deadline. Already the US has reneged on plans to reduce its forces in Afghanistan to around 5,500. No troop reduction will occur during Obama’s remaining few months in office and will continue to operate well into the next president’s term and beyond.

It must be borne in mind that the Americans did not invade and occupy Afghanistan because they liked Afghan bread or kebob. Nor did they occupy the country because of the presence of al-Qaeda, another US creation, and its long-dead leader Osama bin Laden. Another bogeyman had to be created in the form of the takfiris for America to justify its policy of endless war.

The real purpose behind America’s presence in Afghanistan is the country’s mineral resources estimated at some $4 trillion. There may be a lot more riches under Afghanistan’s barren mountains. The Americans want to grab these for themselves. Afghan men, women, and children continue to pay the price in life and limb as they are subjected to drone attacks as well as bombs and missiles fired from high altitude US bombers.

Pity the Afghan people.

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