by Zia Sarhadi (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 43, No. 8, Dhu al-Hijjah, 1435)
After months of political uncertainty, Afghanistan has new president, a former executive at the World Bank. There is also a new ‘chief executive,’ a post created courtesy of the Americans. The more things change, the more they remain the same.
Dr. Ashraf Ghani, a former World Bank executive and the country’s former finance minister has become Afghanistan’s new president. He replaces Hamid Karzai who was in power since 2001 when the Americans installed him in the post after driving the Taliban from power.
It was not smooth sailing for Ghani to the presidential palace and there may be more pitfalls on the way. Since the June 14 presidential run-off, there was a deadlock because his rival, Dr. Abdullah, an eye doctor from the Tajik Northern Alliance group, refused to accept defeat. He alleged rigging and insisted he had won. After a UN audit of the vote, Ghani was declared the winner. Despite this, Abdullah refused to accept the verdict.
There was much behind the scenes maneuvring to placate Abdullah. A deal was finally signed on September 20 under which Abdullah would take up the newly created post of “chief executive officer.” The putative doctor felt being prime minister was not good enough for him. Soon after the June 14 run-off election when Ghani, who hails from the Pashtun Ahmadzai tribe, was declared the winner, Abdullah threw a tantrum. He insisted he had won but was deprived of the coveted post through rigging. The bug of being presidential material has infected a lot of people in the “Third World.’ True, rigging takes place; this is common in much of the world (even in the US and Europe though there is little press about it for obvious reasons) but Ghani and his supporters were not going to let the Tajik upstart get away with the prize.
After the deal was announced on September 21, outgoing President Hamid Karzai, who is trying to present himself as something of an elder statesman now, said, “I’m happy that our brothers, Dr. Ashraf Ghani and Dr. Abdullah, struck an Afghan deal for the sake of goodness and prosperity of the country.” He also expressed hope that with their efforts Afghanistan would attain “long-lasting peace.” It is always good to be optimistic especially at a point when one is about to lose power and become virtually a nonentity.
The deal was brokered by US Secretary of State John Kerry in August when he sat both Ghani and Abdullah for some straight talking although it was couched in diplomatic language. He offered them the carrot of more aid if they worked together. The power-sharing arrangement was Kerry’s idea, proposing that whoever was declared the winner would become president while the loser would get the post of chief executive. This was the only way Abdullah could be placated. Even so, he threatened to abandon the UN-supervised audit process on several occasions. Many observers believe it was designed to extract more concessions from Ghani. Perhaps his tantrums worked.
The Afghans voted along tribal and ethnic lines. Pashtuns constitute a majority in Afghanistan although the Tajiks, despite being a mere 20% of the country’s population, are over-represented in government and the bureaucracy. Ghani chose General Abdul Rashid Dostum, a nasty character, as his running mate but in political terms, it was a shrewd move. This garnered the Uzbek vote for the Ghani ticket and easily put him over the top against his Tajik rival. It also kept Dostum’s ambitions in check. In February and March of 2014, he embarked on well-publicized visits of Uzbekistan and other “stans” and signed deals as if he ran an independent kingdom.
Abdullah held out against a deal because he wanted more powers and authority. According to a draft of the unity government document, the CEO role will become “executive prime minister” in two years’ time. If it materializes, this will indicate a major shift in the way Afghanistan has been ruled since 2001 when the Americans installed Karzai in power following ouster of the Taliban from Kabul. But two years is not only a long time, it is a lifetime in politics. It was the late British Prime Minister Sir Harold Wilson who famously said, “A week is a long time in politics!”
Given his oversized ego and the fact that he thought he was most suited for the presidency, will Abdullah be able to work with Ghani, especially in a subordinate capacity? Ghani is known to be a facilitator and his soft demeanor may keep Abdullah sufficiently placated so as not to upset the applecart. Both know that ultimately it was not the vote but a backroom deal, nudged by the Americans that brought this saga to an end. It also reflects the uncertain political environment where elections and democracy are unknown quantities regardless of how much they are touted by the West. What else can Western governments and their media do? After 13 years of military aggression, not to mention the killing of hundreds of thousands of Afghans, the country is in shambles yet the Americans do not want to leave.
This explains why there was such a huge sigh of relief in Washington once the Afghan deal was announced. Both Ghani and Abdullah have said they would sign the Bilateral Security Agreement under which some 10,000 US troops would stay in Afghanistan for an indefinite period. Karzai refused to sign the agreement fearing for his life once his term as president was over. He may still be a marked man because the Taliban that control large swathes of the country have not forgotten — or forgiven — his role in helping the Americans by betraying the Afghans.
Ghani may be the new Afghan president and Abdullah as the “chief executive officer” (it sounds as if Afghanistan is a corporation rather than a country; perhaps this may be closer to the truth), but the country faces formidable challenges. First, the new administration will have to sign the security agreement with the US. This may be a simple procedure but carries grave risks. The Taliban have said they will not recognize it — they do not even recognize the American-crafted constitution and therefore anything that flows from it — but their anger would be further aroused.
The question is, how long will American troops stay even if they are not involved in direct combat? More importantly, what happens when they leave; will the Afghan troops, being “trained” by the Americans, be up to the task? Thus far, after seeming to have gotten training, they simply disappear with their weapons to join the Taliban. It is not in the Afghan genes to accept the presence of foreign troops on their soil; the only exceptions are the tiny elite that are the direct beneficiaries of American largesse.
Relations with neighbors, especially Pakistan, Iran and India are other crucial issues. With Ghani this may not be a serious problem; Abdullah would have struck close relations with India and soured relations with Pakistan. When he was foreign minister in Karzai’s government after the 2005 elections, Abdullah made it a point to needle Pakistan. His presence in the government will not only be a source of friction internally but he may also poison relations with neighbors at a time when Afghanistan needs peace and stability to give its impoverished war-wracked people an opportunity to rebuild their shattered lives and homes.
Ghani is hoping that he would be able to attract foreign aid and investment despite the Americans’ draw down of troops. He will have to demonstrate that his government is better — far far better — than what Karzai showed in the 13 years he was at the helm. The country’s treasury was treated as a family fortune although in fairness to the outgoing president, the Americans deliberately encouraged such culture. They made deals with unsavory characters bypassing Karzai altogether. Thus, the criterion was not whether a person was honest and efficient; what was important was how useful he was to the Americans. Thus, a large number of warlords were taken on American payroll so that they would not cause trouble for US troops. What they did in their own locales — brutalizing women, imposing harsh punishments on people or outright stealing from them — was not something the Americans bothered about much.
In his first statement after being confirmed as president, Ghani reminded people that poverty, lack of education, income inequality and the country’s dismal security situation were their enemies, not fellow Afghans. This was a direct reference to his tenuous relationship with Abdullah and his Northern Alliance group as well as the threat posed by the Taliban.
Trying to soothe the ruffled feathers of his cantankerous rival and now deputy, Abdullah who carries the pompous title of chief executive, Ghani said, “This victory isn’t just about winning an election. It’s a victory for democracy, for our constitution and for our future.” While most Afghans were left scratching their heads, Ghani went on, “Together, we have turned the page and written a new chapter in our long and proud history, the first peaceful democratic transition between one elected president and another.”
One cannot help but feel sympathy for Ghani; he has inherited a terrible situation although he cannot be entirely absolved of responsibility since he was the finance minister between July 2002 and December 2004 and was part of a setup that presided over the creation of institutionalized corruption. True, he was not personally involved but he was not unaware of what was going on. After the 2004 elections, Ghani declined to continue to serve in the cabinet and requested instead an academic post as Chancellor of Kabul University.
After leaving the university, he co-founded with Clare Lockhart, the Institute for State Effectiveness. Ghani is chairman of the Institute. It put forward a framework proposing 10 functions that the state should perform in order to serve its citizens. As newly elected president of Afghanistan, he will now have a living laboratory to put his theories into practice.
Afghanistan is one of the least developed countries in the world in terms of infrastructure. Whatever little infrastructure the Afghans had built has been destroyed by the American military in its 13-year mission of bringing civilization and democracy to the Afghans. Not surprisingly, millions of Afghans continue to prefer to live in refugee camps in neighboring Pakistan and Iran than return to the death and destruction in their country of origin. At least two generations of Afghans have been born and raised in refugee camps.
According to the Human Development Index (HDI), Afghanistan remains mired in poverty, corruption, and drug production. It is the largest producer of opium and heroin in the world and accounts for nearly 93% of global heroin supply. The Afghans lack most basic necessities of life. The country ranks 175 on the HDI, one of the lowest in the world. Life expectancy remains low at 49 years.
One cannot help but feel sorry for the poor Afghans who have suffered warfare and chaos since 1978 when the communists first staged a military coup against President Sardar Daoud in April of that year. Since Daoud’s ouster and killing, Afghanistan has witnessed endless wars and the killing of millions of its people. Will the new government bring about peace or will the country continue to suffer as will its people for several decades more?
Given American greed and imperial ambitions, it would be simplistic to assume that the people of Afghanistan will witness peace anytime soon. This is a great pity and a tragedy.