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As Afghan inauguration approaches, friction within government still possible

Ashraf Ghani

MCT FILE PHOTO

By SLOBODAN LEKIC | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 26, 2014

KABUL, Afghanistan — Although the power-sharing deal between Afghanistan’s rival political camps enables a new president to take office, it remains unclear whether the two groups can work together to implement sweeping constitutional changes and guide the nation after most foreign troops leave.

And there is little hope, analysts said, for an end to the increasingly bloody 13-year insurgency, even with the relative certainty that some U.S. and international forces will remain in the country after the withdrawal of all combat forces at the end of this year. The new president, American-educated Ashraf Ghani, is expected to sign a Bilateral Security Agreement with the U.S. that will lay out the terms for a training and advisory force of some 9,800 troops to remain in Afghanistan next year.

Retired Lt. Gen. David Barno, former head of the Combined Forces Command-Afghanistan, characterized the power sharing agreement between Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister, as a “shotgun marriage with plenty of potential to go south very quickly.”

After months of tensions and acrimony caused by accusations of massive fraud in the second round of national elections in June, Afghanistan’s top election body certified Ghani as the winner. He is scheduled to be sworn in on Monday to replace incumbent Hamid Karzai.

As part of the U.S.-brokered agreement, Abdullah will likely be named to a new position of chief executive in a government of national unity.

A senior Western official in Kabul who closely followed the negotiations said the new position was the equivalent of a prime minister in parliamentary systems. He confirmed that it had been agreed Abdullah would assume the post, which will be responsible for managing the Cabinet and the implementation of government policies.

However, Barno, who is now a senior fellow at the Center for New American Security, dismissed the notion that the new position would be akin to a prime minister, saying his role would be more of a “subordinate position” slightly higher than a cabinet-level minster.

But it’s vital, he said, that Ghani and Abdullah reach consensus on the myriad economic and national security issues facing Afghanistan, in the wake of the pending American withdrawal. “The consequences of failure are severe,” he said.

Still, many questioned the parties’ commitment to the power-sharing deal in view of the acrimony and accusations that followed the June election.

“This new national unity government doesn’t have a strong foundation because it was formed following many arguments between the two candidates,” said Shahla Farid, a professor of political science at Kabul University. “The new coalition will be consumed by constant disagreements between its members,” she predicted.

The election commission has not yet released the final tally of the June poll, which followed a first round of voting in April in which Abdullah emerged as the top vote-getter. But he failed to win an outright majority, forcing a runoff against the second-placed Ghani.

The decision to delay release of the recount’s results highlights lingering fears that to do so could cause intercommunal tensions and even unleash violence by Abdullah’s disgruntled supporters, Western diplomats said.

While Ghani is backed mainly by the Pashtuns, Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group, Abdullah draws much of his support from smaller communities, such as the Tajiks and Hazaras.

“Despite the power-sharing agreement, it remains unclear whether groups supporting each of the two candidates will remain satisfied with the settlement and its implementation, or will they gamble that they can ultimately gain more by violence,” said Jacqueline L. Hazelton of the U.S. Navy War College.

Although neither Ghani nor Abdullah threatened violence in the wake of the June vote, many of their followers are former mujahedeen fighters who could easily form armed groups if another political impasse develops, Western officials in Kabul said.

Barno, who served in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005, said he was “cautiously optimistic” about the new power-sharing deal. He noted that “this could have gone in a very different direction” if both camps decided to walk away from the unity government plan, brokered by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

But members of both camps will be “keeping an eagle eye for any [inkling] of inequity” in the deal’s implementation, raising the stakes for potential violence between the factions if any signs of inequality emerge, Barno said.

Signing of the bilateral security agreement will be a “really good first test” for the unity government, Barno said. “This is a pretty big sword hanging over their heads.”

Karzai had refused to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement, but both Ghani and Abdullah have backed it.

“I expect it will be signed very shortly after inauguration,” U.S. Ambassador James Cunningham told reporters Tuesday.

Barno agreed: “They will cooperate to get this signed (because) we are flat running out of time.”

Washington and NATO have been pushing to quickly conclude the security agreement, as they have been warning for months, they could be forced to withdraw completely without it.

The rapid collapse of elements of the U.S.-trained Iraqi army when confronted with an offensive by Islamic extremists attacking from across the border in Syria, has focused concerns on how the Afghan forces will perform if left without outside support.

Coalition military leaders are said to be concerned that Afghanistan’s security forces could lose control of some volatile regions in the east and south of the country, where the Taliban have been on the offensive, capitalizing on the withdrawal of foreign forces, who were still providing some assistance to the Afghans.

But Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman Gen. Zaher Azimi, said the security forces, which now number about 350,000, have been leading nearly all counter-insurgency operations since the U.S. and NATO started drawing down their forces 18 months ago.

“The Afghan National Army has been able to defeat the enemy everywhere, and control the situation,” Azimi said.

However, George Friedman, chairman of the intelligence research firm Stratfor, said that Washington and both Afghan camps were relieved that the bilateral security agreement will finally be inked and a residual, post-2014 American military presence finalized before the end-of-year deadline.

“The Afghan state will need U.S. support to be able to fend off the Taliban insurgency,” he said in an analysis released by Stratfor.

“While the Talban cannot militarily overwhelm the Afghan state, neither can Kabul militarily contain the Taliban; the jihadist insurgency will have to be dealt with at some point through a negotiated settlement.”

Stars and Stripes reporter Carlo Munoz and Zubair Babakarkhail contributed to this report.

lekic.slobodan@stripes.com
 

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