October 8, 2014 4:35:59 am
By: Aryaman Bhatnagar
With Ashraf Ghani sworn in as the new president, Afghanistan can finally move on from what has been an exceptionally long electoral process. As the new government settles in, its ability to deal with the challenges before it will depend to a large extent on how it manages its relations with a variety of actors. While reviving the peace process with the Taliban and seeking better relations with neighbouring countries are likely to be among Kabul’s top priorities, keeping the national unity government together may prove to be as daunting a task.
According to the new arrangement, the losing candidate, Abdullah Abdullah, is accommodated in the government as chief executive. This lies at the core of the agreement between the two leaders. But this is not a system that has been in the making over the last few years. It was created to break the recent political deadlock. It does not even have any legal or constitutional backing at the moment. As such, its durability depends largely on the “the commitment of both sides to partnership, collegiality, collaboration”.
There are concerns among Abdullah’s supporters that he may be reduced to a mere figurehead or that Ghani, who, as president, remains the most powerful person in the country, could still seek to extend his powers. There is always the danger that if Ghani makes any attempt to assert himself or if Abdullah’s team feels that Ghani is deviating from the terms of the agreement, it could provoke an adverse reaction.
How well the two leaders manage to control their respective support bases will also be crucial for the smooth functioning of the government. During the election campaign, both leaders had made promises to a number of regional powerbrokers in order to secure their support. With government positions now shared between both parties, it remains to be seen how factions that feel short-changed or completely excluded from the promised benefits will react.
The new government has also inherited a peace dialogue with the Taliban, which can be described, at best, as a stop-start process. The Afghan High Peace Council, the body entrusted with the task of leading this process, recently admitted that it has been a failure. The Taliban’s denouncement of the two leaders as “the new US employees for the Kabul administration” suggests that Ghani and Abdullah may find it as difficult to reach out to it as their predecessor did.
Besides the Taliban’s public stance of not wanting to talk directly with leaders it views as American stooges, the persistence of its military threat also places the government on the back foot. The last two years have been extremely violent in Afghanistan as indicated by the sharp increase in civilian and ANSF casualties. The Taliban has also managed to make significant inroads into parts of eastern and southern Afghanistan. The impending drawdown of foreign forces by the end of 2014 and doubts over the capability of the Afghan National Security Forces may make it even tougher for the government to tilt the military balance in its favour and compel the Taliban to enter into a genuine and sustainable dialogue.
The military drawdown is likely to be accompanied by a reduction in developmental aid from Western donor countries as well. In light of dwindling Western interest, Kabul is likely to expect more assistance from regional countries like Iran, China and India. Despite assurances from all three that they are willing to stay the course, it will be a challenge for the new government to ensure that they increase their engagement in Afghanistan even without the security umbrella of foreign troops. None of the three is in a position to contribute substantially towards securing the country and this is likely to affect their involvement in other spheres as well.
Finally, dealing with Pakistan has been problematic for most Afghan governments over the past few decades and it is unlikely to be different for the new administration. The past few months have seen a volley of accusations from Kabul on incidents of cross-border firing. Pakistan’s support for various Afghan insurgent groups also continues to be an ever-present sore point in bilateral relations.
While the civilian government in Islamabad may be open to the idea of improving ties with Kabul, the ongoing political crisis in Pakistan has further restricted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s space for manoeuvre as far as an approach to Afghanistan is concerned. In the absence of any significant reduction in the Pakistan army’s influence in the formulation of the country’s foreign policy, it is unlikely that Pakistan will abandon its policy of interfering in Afghanistan’s internal affairs any time soon. This, consequently, is going to prevent any significant progress in Afghanistan-Pakistan ties.
The writer is associate fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi
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