Afghan Political Landscape

Spearhead Analysis – 22.01.2018

By Hira A. Shafi
Senior Research Analyst, Spearhead Research

Afghanistan is gearing up for its parliamentary elections in July 2018 and the Afghan Presidential elections are due in 2019. Currently, the Afghan political fabric is undergoing major shifts and appears fluid.

The National Unity Government leadership is under increasing pressure from various opposition parties. Recently, The NUG witnessed a major blow due to –Balkh governor –Atta Noor’s falling out with the Center. Reportedly, Atta Noor submitted his resignation as a measure to negotiate certain reforms with the Center. However, Noor states that President Ghani has fallen short on his end of the bargain and thus the resignation in Noor’s view is also void. Instead, Noor now demands resignation of both NUG leaders.

Several other prominent Jamiat members are developing an increasingly hostile rhetoric against Ghani, they see the recent failures in consensus with Noor’s demands as a part of Ghani’s efforts to sideline other ethnic groups– the terms of their agreements that led to Noor’s resignation have not been publicly disclosed. Despite being a member of Jamiat- Abdullah Abdullah has not been spared from criticisms; Dr Abdullah was seen as colluding with Ghani against Noor. Reportedly, President Ghani may also be looking into using military power to dismantle Atta Noor’s stronghold from Balkh.

Following the vociferous criticism, Abdullah tried to detach himself from the Noor’s resignation approval and stated that “I always said that it must not happen but it was decided 15 days before the announcement…Accepting of Noor’s resignation was President Ghani’s move. The resignation was not my decision.” This stance also highlighted the tensions between the two key NUG leaders. The developments in Balkh are of concern to the US, the US ambassador to Afghanistan has called for ‘peaceful settlement of the issue’. Reportedly, Atta Noor’s governance of Balkh has resulted in positive socio-economic development of the province and has also managed to keep ‘insurgency’ at bay. Many fear that the current tensions may reverse gains and pave way for an intensified civil war– especially owing to the ethnic grievances involved.

As the election season is nearing, The NUG is also facing immense pressure for ‘inadequate reforms’ in the national election bodies. Allegedly, the Afghan Independent Election Commission is embroiled in corruption and nepotism. President Ghani made some efforts to appease the opposition by sacking the former IEC Chairperson- but this measure was not so fruitful either as several believe the sacking took place due to Ghani’s personal differences with the Chairperson.

A wide conglomerate of opposition parties, such as the ‘Understanding Council’ is demanding an overhaul of the IEC members prior to the elections. Some Afghan politicians predict that the NUG would fail to hold the next elections on time.

Towards the end of last year, the Center undertook the task of officially selecting some 12 cabinet members. The selection process passed through the Wolesi Jirga (lower house) votes of confidence.  According to Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN) analysis ‘Contrary to past experiences, the Wolesi Jirga votes went comparatively smoothly are open to speculation. President Ashraf Ghani had openly warned candidates against making payments to or doing other deals with MPs. Another strong incentive was surely that parliamentary elections will soon be upon us, officially planned for July 2018 In that situation, candidates can be expected to avoid the wrath of the President who, if past elections are anything to go by, personally and through his apparatus, will play a key role in determining who will run and who gets his support.’

Another interesting change during this selection process- as noted by AAN- was that “The new ministers’ backgrounds reveal that, unlike previous offerings of candidates, many are not easily identified with the two camps in the National Unity Government (NUG), that of President Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah. With upcoming elections casting shadows ahead, the emergence of new ‘opposition’ groups and developments in Abdullah’s JIA the two camps have started to lose cohesion. Also, more professional candidates with less clear political affiliation have started to come in.”

This seemingly ‘technocratic’ arrangement would be ideal for Ghani’s visions. However, the realities of various patronage networks, warlordism, ethnic polarization and corruption may not be easily sidelined. The pressure on NUG- and more specifically towards President Ghani is increasing. He faces accusations of systematic sidelining of non-Pashtuns. His earlier falling out with General Dostum continues to remain a sticking point- Dostum in exile is an active opposition voice. Reportedly, Atta Noor has joined forces with Dostum uniting key figures from the Tajik, Hazara and Uzbek communities.

Hamid Karzai continues to remain a vociferous opposition voice; over the past year his support was attached to various antigovernment protests. Recently, some reports pointed at possibilities of political collusions between Karzai and former NDS chief Rahmattulah Nabi.  The head of the commission overlooking political implementations of NUG agreements has also recently called for constitutional reforms to curb presidential powers. In his view “Article 60 to 77 notes the power and authorities of the President; enormous power has been prescribed to the President – like a Sultan – and sometimes even beyond that. The president has been granted enormous powers in the political, economic, security (sectors) and in several other areas… the chief executive officer does not have any role in the implementation of these affairs.” Abdullah Abdullah has also extended his support to these notions and has reportedly welcomed the idea of ‘fundamental Constitutional Reforms’.

The Afghan political landscape is contentious and divided along an assortment of agendas; as a result, the social fabric suffers from chronic hindrances in receiving good governance. President Ghani recently stated that “without American assistance Kabul can’t fight the many militant groups active in the country after 16 years of US involvement, and the Afghan national army won’t last longer than six months on its own.” However, at the same time, the US military offenses are deeply interlinked to constraints in Afghan political- socio-economic developments.   President Ghani’s ‘reformist visions’ have often optimistically looked beyond the contentious political realities of Afghanistan, relevant and realistic solutions need to be devised. The political atmosphere in Afghanistan is still defining itself, the final outcomes of the recent developments are yet to be seen. However, tackling an active opposition, seeking support of corrupt warlords, combatting armed resistance, appeasing a deprived, war torn population, are extremely challenging tasks- that create multidimensional uncertainties.