After a long electoral process, on September 27, 2014, Ashraf Ghani was sworn in as the Afghan president. The arrangements to grant him that office, which was earned in a controversial election, were not easy, because it forced a generous conciliation with Abdullah Abdullah, Ghani’s chief rival. Abdullah was granted the role of chief executive of the government, a sort of Afghan Prime Minister.
As Michael Keating points out, this is a blow to the trustworthiness of the electoral process, which serves precisely to avoid this sort of agreement among elites. Nevertheless, in a country split by decades of war, rampant violence, and a wavering economy, the willingness of the two to join forces is worthy of euphoria, particularly among the United States and its NATO allies. It is important to note that a unified national government is essential for the stability not only of the country but also of the region, at a time when on the other Iranian border, Iraq and Syria are disintegrating in a fierce fight against extremism marred by irresponsible international intervention.
The president and his “new” right arm (doubts about the possibility of reconciling the two opposing sides, and indeed how this system will work, are still on the air) must confront the Taliban insurgency, which has been reluctant to involve itself in diplomacy. As Seth Jones has explained, it was never the case that “local Afghans were … motivated by religion to support insurgent groups and oppose the Afghan government. Rather, they were motivated by poor or nonexistent governance.” In other words, the challenge of the Afghan state is to be present, and for that it relies necessarily on foreign aid. The state requires a minimum continuity of institutional functioning, especially while the democratic transition is still underway.
Still, it is important to acknowledge that over-centralization may become a trap, and that brings another set of challenges to the newly installed president and his colleague. To understand this issue and others related to the Afghan state structure and formation, we need to examine the country’s birth certificate.
The Afghan state through the centuries
Afghanistan is a sui generis state in the region. Even though it is relatively close to some important Middle Eastern states, it was not crafted by the logic of the Sykes-Picot Agreement (1916), and has a history that goes back to the eighteenth century.
Pressed by both the Savafid and Mogul Empire during the eighteenth century, the territory that today makes up the country is the result of the so-called “Great Game” between the British and Russian Empire. That is not to say that local traditional groups played no part. Since 1709, Pashtun tribes, representing one of the main ethnic groups of the country, began to establish a political entity based in Kandahar, and then attaching Kabul, which would become the capital of the modern Afghan state. Throughout the nineteenth century, state structures were expanded, but the geography of the territory interfered with a complete national integration.
During that period and the early twentieth century, the Afghans fought three wars against British hegemony. On those three occasions, they had somewhat positive responses to their claims, despite having to settle their border according to the Durand Line, which divided the Pashtun into two distinct political entities (the other being the part of British India that would later become the Pakistani state). The third Anglo-Afghan war (1919) completed the country’s independence, and the king sworn in at that moment tried to enhance a political-social reform project similar to the one that Kemal Ataturk was promoting in Turkey. While outside the country, however, the king was overthrown. The stability would return only after Mohamed Zaher ascended the throne in the year of 1933. He remained in power until the 1973 coup orchestrated by his then prime minister and cousin, Mohammed Daoud Khan.
The figure of that latter king echoed through the ensuing years, so much so that he was even considered for a position in the government after 2001. But the legacy of stability that he had left to the country was lost in subsequent years of civil war. The 1963 Constitution, featuring a circumscribed monarchy, the right to new parties, freedom of expression and the possibility to travel easily abroad, and the consolidation of a wide range of rights for women and minority ethnic groups, highlighted the socio-political plurality of the country, which succumbed to the Cold War. That was a double-edged sword that hurt Afghanistan deeply: while the nation managed to get Soviet financial and technological support, Moscow developed a zeal to keep Afghanistan in its protective mantle. Though even in that situation, the king tried many times to expand the possibilities of the country, a 1978 coup was clearly pro-Moscow, and the subsequent events were chaotic. A violent, Soviet-influenced transition later gave way to a devastating civil war and the Taliban takeover.
Regarding that period, it is necessary to note American participation in financing radical groups that once fought against the Soviet puppet government. President Ronald Reagan called those mujahideen “freedom fighters” and supported his words with American public funds backing the formation of various groups of resistance. These groups were separated along different lines of ideas and ethnicity, but were mostly radical and almost always rooted in neighboring Pakistan to fight against the communist government in Kabul. Islamabad had become by that time an essential partner in Washington’s decision process, even though the country was then ruled by the dictator Zia Ul-Haq.
After 1992, with the end of Soviet power in Afghanistan, the country’s socio-political dynamic was irrevocably split, until the Taliban took power and imposed control over almost the entire territory of the country in 1996. Not by chance, that movement was seen positively at the beginning by the United States, bearing in mind that the stabilization of Afghanistan was beneficial to the economic interests in Central Asia. Again, the calculations were wrong. The intellectual and financial leadership of Osama Bin Laden, and his aid and support to the Afghan Taliban movement, built a basis for the global fight against American hegemony.
The 2001 war and the democratic elections
The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 again dramatically changed the destiny of the country. Retaliatory air strikes against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda positions by the American coalition forces began in October. By December, the United States and its allies had managed to drive off their enemies to the mountains of Pakistan. The democratic reconstruction of the country was then threatened by these exiled insurgents, funded by the Pakistani Pashtun areas. The turn to democracy was approved by a Loya Jirga (a traditional political institution of the Pashtun) in Bonn, Germany in December, 2001. Shortly thereafter, the interim presidency was handed to Hamid Karzai. The first democratic elections held after the ousting of the Taliban happened on October 9, 2004, and it had 18 applicants. Karzai, who was at that time considered by the United States and NATO countries the best man for the job, won those elections. The challenges that that election brought, including allegations of fraud and lack of ability of certain regions to participate in the electoral process, ethnic divisions, and the interests of warlords would be repeated in the 2009 elections, when Karzai won again. The same problems appeared in the most recent election, which led to the presidency of Mr. Ghani.
Given these developments, what is the importance of Afghanistan in the geopolitical landscape of Asia and the global fight against terrorism? After the failure of the Iraq War, the United States turned its focus back to Afghanistan, which was posed as a necessity. Thus, President Barack Obama has tried to keep troops in the country and ensure the basic stability in the region. However, President Karzai, who was already unfavorable toward Obama’s policies, was reluctant to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement (ABS) between the two countries, allowing this military presence. Yet, as predicted by van Linschoten and Kuehn, the new president’s first move would be the signing of the BSA, and Ghani did readily do so once he took office. Granting stability against the threat of the Taliban is a move toward dissipating the decade of defragmentation — but it is not enough.
The political fate of Afghanistan is relevant not only for the millions of Afghans, whose readiness to go to the polls, even with the daily threat of violence, is worthy of note, but to neighboring countries and the complex battle against Islamic radicalism. Even Pakistan, its suspicious neighbor, realizes that its own crises are linked to resolution of the Afghan conflict. For its own good and for the sensitivity it poses in the region, Afghanistan needs a process of national reconciliation that goes beyond negotiation with the Taliban. Perhaps this began when Ghani and Abdullah agreed to form a national coalition government. The question is whether the vices of the country (corruption being one of the worst) can be controlled. The possible return of the Taliban to power, and maybe the dismantling of the poor governance attempted from Kabul, would be catastrophic, not only nationally, but also globally, especially at the present time.