September 24, 2014

Afghanistan: Light at the End of a Very Long Tunnel?

RNPS - REUTERS NEWS PICTURE SERVICE - PICTURES OF THE YEAR 2014 A supporter of Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah holds an Afghan flag after an election campaign rally in the Paghman district of Kabul, in this June 9, 2014 file photo. REUTERS/Ahmad Masood/Files (AFGHANISTAN - Tags: POLITICS ELECTIONS TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)
RNPS - REUTERS NEWS PICTURE SERVICE - PICTURES OF THE YEAR 2014 A supporter of Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah holds an Afghan flag after an election campaign rally in the Paghman district of Kabul, in this June 9, 2014 file photo. REUTERS/Ahmad Masood/Files (AFGHANISTAN - Tags: POLITICS ELECTIONS TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)

After more than three months of intense political arm-wrestling and vote-counting and re-counting, the two presidential contenders, Dr. Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai and Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, signed on 21 September 2014 an agreement in Kabul to establish a government of Afghan national unity. The deal gave the presidency to Dr. Ghani, but it also created a new position of “chief executive officer” (CEO), which could be approximately likened to the position of the prime minister in Western governments.

After more than three months of intense political arm-wrestling and vote-counting and re-counting, the two presidential contenders, Dr. Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai and Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, signed on 21 September 2014 an agreement in Kabul to establish a government of Afghan national unity. The deal gave the presidency to Dr. Ghani, but it also created a new position of “chief executive officer” (CEO), which could be approximately likened to the position of the prime minister in Western governments.

The godfathers of the deal were Mr. Ján Kubiš, the Head of UNAMA (United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan) and Mr. James Cunningham, the United States Ambassador to Afghanistan. With U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit of support to Kabul in early August, the contenders finally struck the deal. It was not pretty and it was hardly democratic, but it was the best that could be had, while a real threat was yet another round of destructive civil war in the country that has not seen a day of peace since December 1979.
The beauty of the deal is that it will give something concrete and politically valuable to both contending camps. Dr. Ghani becomes president, with his wide powers vested in the Afghan Constitution. Dr. Abdullah, or anyone else he might choose to nominate to the position, will become the CEO, with the extensive powers agreed by both parties to the deal.
There are to be four new positions: a CEO, two of his deputies and a “leader of the opposition”. There will also be a newly created “Council of Ministers” that will be chaired by the CEO. The Council will meet every week, and as such will give a strong position to the CEO to influence and formulate issues and to carry out government policies.
Most significantly, the deal includes “parity” in senior security and economic appointments, committing the two leaders to “parity in the selection of personnel between the President and the CEO at the level of head of key security and economic institutions and independent directorates”.
Perhaps even more important is the principle that the appointments are to be “merit-based” – it would be a first in the country where corruption and patronage are endemic. How to make that principle operational might well become a cause of serious friction between the two political camps in the future. On the other hand, it will at least give a chance to try and keep ethnic and tribal ambitions at bay.
It has been noted that the agreement appears to ignore the role of the Afghan Parliament in approving appointments or acting as a body where the legal opposition to the executive could flourish. Be that slight intentional or unintentional, in the past decade under the Karzai Government it has been clear that the Parliament has been factional and unable to mount a credible challenge to the Government. With two strong personalities, Drs. Ghani and Abdullah, in the newly formulated, even more powerful executive, it seems that the Parliament’s role will continue to be rather limited.
The proof of the pudding is in the eating, and only the time will tell whether or not the new power-sharing arrangement will work in practice. There is now, however, finally a real chance to bring closure to Afghanistan’s political crisis and to stop the cycle of political in-fighting that has so much emasculated the Karzai Government.
The new Government of Afghanistan has much work to do from the containment of the Taliban insurgency to the resuscitation of the declining economy and to the tackling of wide-spread poverty. One of the first tasks is to make a decision to sign the bilateral U.S.-Afghan security agreement (BSA) that will regulate the scope and character of the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan after 2014. As presidential candidates, both Dr. Ghani and Dr. Abdullah supported quick signing of the BSA.
It is obvious that he Government has a better chance of succeeding in these gargantuan tasks, if it can maintain national unity.

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