By Ershad Ahmadi
OCT. 1, 2015
ON Monday, Taliban forces took the northern city of Kunduz. In Kabul, the mood was grim. The Parliament summoned security chiefs for questioning and accused the government of incompetence. Meanwhile, news photos show Taliban commanders raising their flag in the center of Kunduz, posing triumphantly.
This is not what our country was supposed to look like a year after the formation of the national unity government, an agreement the United States helped broker. Afghanistan is on a regressive path. The political arrangement between President Ashraf Ghani and his chief executive, Abdullah Abdullah, has metamorphosed into the opposite of everything it was designed to deliver.
Instead of inclusiveness and unity, we have an isolated government at odds with its own constituency. Countering corruption and making government more responsive now appear to be extravagant hopes. The leadership has failed to agree on very basic key appointments, such as an attorney general and governors. Increased attacks and disputed territories stymie the prospects for better security. Ungoverned spaces and the emergence of terrorist groups like the Islamic State pose a graver threat today than they did a year ago.
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The plight of Afghanistan and its uncertain future can be seen globally by the mass exodus of its youth. According to United Nations figures, we are ranked No. 2, after Syria, in the number of refugees fleeing the country. On the streets here in Kabul, families are selling all their household goods in order to escape — a scene reminiscent of our recent dark past. I am deeply disturbed by images of young Afghans on dangerous voyages in search of refuge and better economic prospects.
The national unity government was grudgingly welcomed by Afghans as a stopgap measure, but it has lost time and opportunity to consolidate itself in its first year.
With bruised constitutional legitimacy, Mr. Ghani and Mr. Abdullah needed to focus promptly on the issues that matter most to the Afghan population: the economy, security and governance. Instead, the leaders had a naïve or perhaps delusional belief that they had a strong mandate from the Afghan population. They decided to take on one of the most sensitive issues facing the country: resetting ties with Pakistan. The failure to achieve improved relations cost President Ghani an immense amount of political capital. His eroding credibility has even raised populist questions about his political loyalties.
The two teams constituting the national unity government have engaged in a bitter power-sharing fight that has led to a loss of public confidence. Leaders bargain for influence with divisive undertones around ethnicity; in some cases it becomes a question of the westernized elite versus traditional loyalties. The tug of war over distribution of key government positions has led to institutional paralysis.
And the leadership has proved unable to communicate to its domestic audience. Rather than provide a vision for the country, they have tried to exonerate themselves by saying they inherited a bad legacy.
In their telling, failure to implement campaign promises isn’t their fault; it’s the fault of reduced international military presence and aid. But upon what foresight were these promises based? Just when the political and military transition of 2014 was supposed to build a sense that the country could turn inward for solutions, this scapegoating is costly to morale and the prospects that Afghanistan can ever stand firmly on its own feet.
The challenges to the national unity government formula will not vanish miraculously. However, the government can correct the course, by acknowledging the gravity of the situation and prioritizing the following steps.
First, the government needs to shift focus to domestic politics. Internal cohesion can improve national morale, underpin the government’s legitimacy and build resilience. The national unity government leaders must show a strong commitment to implementing the key milestones under the political agreement of Sept. 20, 2014, including convening of a loya jirga, or grand council, a year from now. Pragmatism must guide the government’s approach here — both in preparing for the council, and in garnering widespread support for a common political agenda. Leaders must not invoke convenient excuses to avoid or delay their commitments under the political agreement. There is a real risk that the national unity government could succumb to security challenges by the Taliban, foreign militant groups or a political insurgence.
Second, the government must become inclusive in its approach to governance. And it needs to act with confidence and tact. The protracted wrangling on issues such as postponing parliamentary elections, the distribution of electronic identity cards, the signing of a cooperation agreement with Pakistan’s intelligence agency and the appointment of an electoral reform commission greatly undermined the credibility of a voiceless government. Our leaders must quickly figure out how to instill a sense of hope and confidence in the country. Our security forces must know and believe in what they are defending and dying for.
Third, our leaders, and other influential voices in the country, must protect the integrity of the Afghan democratic and constitutional polity. From the chaos of 2001, we have built the foundations of a democratic system over the past 14 years. We have to nurture, not stifle, political opposition, within the framework of our constitutional system.
Continued and enhanced economic and political support to Afghanistan is crucial for the viability of the government. Afghanistan is faring better than Syria and Iraq in many ways, but it appears to have exhausted its stay on top of the American and international community agendas. If Afghanistan is to have the chance to become a success story because of the United States and NATO intervention, it cannot be abandoned halfway.
Ershad Ahmadi was deputy foreign minister for political affairs in Afghanistan from 2013 to 2014 and is the president of Kabul Compass, a strategic analysis firm.