The formation of the national unity government in Afghanistan remains incomplete and the 45-day deadline that President Ashraf Ghani had set for himself to announce the cabinet appointments has just passed.
Evidently, the two coalition partners comprising the government — Ghani’s and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah’s respectively — could not reach consensus and within each group far too many claimants are vying for the limited number of cabinet posts, leading to political wrangles that have made government formation a tortuous process.
A Kabul datelined report in the New York Times presents this dismal picture. The report will reinforce the opinion of most Indian analysts too, whose gloomy assessment makes things seem all but hopeless.
But the good thing is that Ghani started running right from the moment he hit the ground. He arrived in Pakistan on Friday, swiftly following up a productive trip to Beijing, which was also, interestingly, his first state visit abroad as president.
If his focus in Beijing was to elicit a big Chinese role in the stabilization of Afghanistan in the political and economic spheres alike, his agenda in Islamabad will be to try to put behind the acrimonious history of Afghan-Pakistani ties during Karzai’s rule (who was viewed with distaste in Pakistan) as well as to explore the possibilities of kickstarting a reconciliation process, with Pakistan brokering it on the ground (which of course demands the injection of an ambience of good-neighborly relations across the Durand Line.)
Indeed, much of the current pessimism regarding the post-2014 Afghan scenario stems out of an estimation that the national unity government in Kabul may prove transient and in a short time from now Ghani and Abdullah will be at loggerheads and the tussle will take the flavor of an ethnic discord sooner or later, which in turn would create civil war conditions that could only work to the advantage of the Taliban.
This doomsday prediction emanates out of an assumption that the experiment of the national unity government is a contrived idea, which the Americans imposed on the Afghan political class, and which is predicated on consensual politics and will inevitably crash against the bedrock of ethnic politics in Afghanistan.
However, on closer examination all this becomes a false assumption or a facile estimation and a premature rush to judgment.
The extraordinary thing about the US’ initiative of a national unity government has been that it is actually old wine in a new bottle. Washington has promoted continuity in the aftermath of what proved to be an extremely divisive presidential election
The challenge facing Secretary of State John Kerry when he came o Kabul on the mediatory mission was to make the winner (Ghani) the president without making the loser (Abdullah) feel he ‘lost’.
But alongside something else also happened — namely, Kerry also made sure that the ethnic balance that was the mainstay of Afghan politics during the past decade or more of Karzai’s rule has been preserved.
If the Karzai regime was a revolving door through which a procession of key figures drawn from various non-Pashtun communities passed in some capacity or the other — Burhanuddin Rabbani, Dr. Abdul Rahman, Muhammad Fahim, Abdullah Abdulah, Ismail Khan, Rasul Sayyaf, Younus Qanooni, Ahmed Zia Massoud, Karim Khalili, Mohammed Atta, Mohammed Mohaqiq, Rashid Dostum — Ghani era promises continuity.
What does it mean? It means two things. One, Afghan ethnic politics will keep simmering but will not approach the boiling point of an inter-communal struggle that might have exacerbated the prevailing conditions of instability.
Two, the political system, which although highly centralized in the persona of the president, nonetheless continues to provide space — even proportional distribution of power — to various ethnic, tribal and regional power brokers.
Clearly, a system that accommodates even electoral losers can be trusted to keep ethnic tensions in check. (Ghani has promised Abdullah that his nominees will get half of the key portfolios in the cabinet, including either interior or defence.)
The bottom line here is that so long as ethnic politics is preserved on these lines, the possibility of the Afghan armed forces splintering into unruly militias does not arise. The implications of this for overall stability are self-evident.
Put differently, even a disaffected warlord today understands that he has more to gain by remaining within the system rather than challenging it.
Indeed, the US should continue to encourage the preservation of the political balance between the ethnic groups. The US enjoys much greater leverage today, because Ghani is a predictable ally — unlike Karzai who proved to be mercurial.
At the end of the day, Afghanistan remains critically dependent on US-led foreign assistance. Suffice it to say, everything depends now on continued American engagement at the political and diplomatic level so that the requisite underpinning is available for the all-important mission of building up Afghanistan’s capacity for safeguarding national security, while also enabling Kabul to negotiate with the Taliban from a position of relative strength.
Simply put, the danger to Afghan stability arises not so much from lack of internal cohesion as from the external factors — principally, the role of the regional players.
Iran may seem a wild card but everything depends on the progress of the negotiations on the nuclear issue. If a deal can be struck, Iran overnight becomes Washington’s best ally on the Afghan chessboard, not merely as a factor of stability but also as active promoter of the US-led strategy to stabilize Afghanistan.
Equally, the Barack Obama administration has done brilliantly to encourage a ‘pro-active role’ by China. Indeed, China being a stakeholder in peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan would have many positive fallouts for regional security.
Most important, it compels Pakistan to rethink its Afghan strategies. On its part, therefore, China has moved fast on a parallel track to offer a New Silk Road package of seamless possibilities to Pakistan, which can be seen as an invitation in geopolitical terms to play a responsible role in Afghanistan. (The outcome of Ghani’s visit to Islamabad will be a litmus test of new thinking in Pakistan.)
The two other regional players — Russia and India — are sitting on the fence and that creates some uncertainties. This needs some explaining.
These are extraordinary times when Russia views the regional and international situation — even the G20 summit in Brisbane — almost exclusively through the prism of its frosty ties with the US that fall just short of outright hostility.
No doubt, Russia’s trust deficit with the US explains — partly, at least — the strange stance Moscow took at the recent international conference on Afghanistan in Beijing where it reportedly rejected a Chinese proposal to create a peace and reconciliation committee in Afghanistan involving regional countries.
Perhaps, Moscow is nervous about any ensuing erosion of its leadership role in integrating the Central Asian space as a political and economic bloc.
Or, it could be that Moscow is simply sulking, having been reduced to a marginal player in the new regime headed by Ghani, an ex-World Bank official close to Washington who is also at the same an “old friend” for Beijing.
To be sure, Moscow cannot but remain on guard as regards the American intentions in Afghanistan. After all, the US has a consistent history of exploiting the forces of militant Islam as instruments of its regional policies.
A flashpoint may arise if a curious Syria-style role reversal ensues — America staunchly backing the Ghani regime and Russia covertly undercutting it. If that happens, it could be a matter of time before the black flag of the Islamic State makes its appearance in Afghanistan.
India’s dilemma would be similar to Russia’s and, perhaps, somewhat more acute. Delhi bristles, having lost the great game in the Hindu Kush to Pakistan — and, as it happens, China’s lengthening shadows also create a sense of deep disquiet.
The nascent Sino-American concord — Afghanistan figured prominently in Obama’s conversations with Chinese President Xi Jinping last week — also makes Delhi feel isolate. And, to cap it all, in Karzai’s retirement, Delhi lost an irreplaceable friend.
The Indian policy has reached a cul-de-sac and it should own the blame for it. What makes things extremely difficult is that this is now going to be much more than a matter of adjustment to new realities alone.
The new government in Delhi has lately begun ostentatiously wearing on its sleeve its bullish spirit of rivalry vis-a-vis China, which may preclude any worthwhile Sino-Indian cooperation over Afghanistan.
Alas, smitten by the intense feelings of rivalry via-a-vis China, Delhi refuses to comprehend that India and China are actually traveling in the same boat and could be likely becoming ‘frontline states’ fighting terrorism.
On the other hand, the government is bankrupt of ideas for engaging Pakistan constructively and remains (as of now) a captive of its domestic constituency that is rooted in archaic notions of Hindu nationalism.
In sum, India and Pakistan seem fated to continue to think in zero sum terms on vital issues affecting regional security and stability.
The Chinese proposal to create a peace and reconciliation committee involving the regional countries ought to serve India’s interests and give impetus to new thinking in Delhi and provide a new sense of direction to India’s Afghan policy. It could give Delhi a sense of participation rather than be an outsider looking in.
The US and China should jointly promote the idea of a regional forum that commits the countries surrounding Afghanistan to foster peace and reconciliation in that country. It could even provide the germane seeds of a much-needed architecture of collective security — something which this region inhabited by nuclear powers lacks.