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Sense of relief in Afghanistan

Sense of relief in Afghanistan
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There is light at last at the end of the dark tunnel called Afghanistan. Three months after a contentious, fraud-tainted election, a settlement has...

There is light at last at the end of the dark tunnel called Afghanistan. Three months after a contentious, fraud-tainted election, a settlement has been reached, paving the way for a national unity government.

Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, a former finance minister and a World Bank executive, who is an ethnic Pashtun, is set to be the country’s next president. The role of the Number 2, with the new nomenclature of Chief Executive Officer (CEO), is likely to be taken by Dr Abdullah Abdullah, an eye surgeon-turned-Mujahid, who represents the Tajiks and other minority groups.

Both claimed victory in the elections. The disputed run-off had threatened to plunge the country into turmoil and complicate the withdrawal of US and other foreign troops. A share in power was the only way out. The agreement was reached last Saturday night at the presidential palace. The two embraced, watched by outgoing leader, Hamid Karzai.

The vote fraud is widely believed to be an ‘official’ job in that Karzai’s officials carried it out – something that has been captured on camera. It hits Ghani’s image even before he takes over. For someone who has built an international reputation as an incorruptible technocrat is tarnished by the fact that most of the fraud in the election was discovered to be in his votes. That the national unity government itself was announced, without making public the final vote audit points to a patch work.

However, the creation of the government of national unity will now diminish the importance of the election result. After the audit, the final gap between the two candidates was less than three points - a significant cut from Ashraf Ghani's lead after the first count of 13 points.

The compromise solution can be considered undemocratic. But given the fractious Afghan politics, there was little choice left. The dispute compelled the United Nations to push hard for a “national unity government” to avoid a return to the ethnic divisions of the 1990s civil war. The US endorsed and worked for it. The deal is a victory for US Secretary of State John Kerry, who first got the candidates to agree in principle to share power during a July visit.

The Obama administration has been somehow keen to end its engagement in Afghanistan since, with no credible victory in sight, it needs to extricate itself. Moreover, the US is gradually, but surely getting entangled in Syria and Iraq. The national unity government may just about succeed in facilitating this process.

The power-sharing between the two may be tricky. For one, it would be a challenge, considering the deep ethnic divide, the presence of several warlords, each with armed militia in support, and the role the outside powers will play – as they have done in the past four decades.

Under the Afghan Constitution, the President wields almost total control, and the new government structure will face a major test as the country's security and economic outlook worsens.

The situation had been tenuous for months after Karzai refused to sign a security agreement to ensure a continued foreign military presence after this year. Afghanistan’s security has already been passed on to the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police. Both grossly under-staffed, under trained and under-equipped, they have a huge challenge ahead.

Karzai can now lay down office after 12 years. His future role, if any, is not specified. Will he play the father figure? That is unlikely since he had annoyed the Americans no end in the last few years. He was Afghanistan’s TINA (there is no alternative) factor sand could not be touched as long as he held office. He makes way, but the power transfer is fraught with serious uncertainty.

Karzai may choose to retire home, or if the going gets too tough and his security is seriously threatened, he may have to leave the country. But that would be determined in the foreseeable future.

That the landmark event was broadcast live on television shows its importance. It permits a sigh of relief for all concerned. The most relieved would be the Americans who are scheduled to leave by December. Of the 41,000 troops of the North Atlantic
Treaty Organisation (NATO), mostly Americans now stationed there, about 12,000 may stay on.

Quite how president-elect Ashraf Ghani and possibly his number two, incoming chief executive officer Abdullah Abdullah, will get along in office remains to be seen. It is better though to have a peaceful settlement rather than chaos and civil war.

For Ghani, a challenging task awaits amidst uncertainties. For one, he will have to sign a long-delayed bilateral security agreement with the United States to allow a small force of foreign troops to remain in Afghanistan after 2014.

Some contours of the new government are available. Under the agreement, the President will be responsible for setting strategic policy and the Chief Executive will be in charge of implementation. Each will be allowed to make half the cabinet appointments. The heads of the defense, interior and intelligence ministries will remain in their jobs for three months to provide continuity.

The new administration has its task cut out. It will have to stabilise the economy as international aid falls, and deal with worsening unrest nationwide. Efforts to open a peace process with the Taliban failed under Karzai and may be revived. But the Taliban, who have lived in the safe haven in Pakistan, seem to be in no mood to talk. They are awaiting their moment to storm back to Kabul. Whether they can do that would remain uncertain and depend upon multiple factors, most of which cannot even be foreseen.

Turmoil threatens to continue in Afghanistan. A total of 2,312 civilians were killed in the first eight months of this year, an increase of 15 percent from 2013. This could escalate in months immediately after the US/NATO forces withdraw. The residual force may be of little help considering that the Taliban had the upper hand against its might even when the fore was as high as 150,000.

The two men now on the horizon will have to quickly settle the issue of the post-2014 future of the international presence, led by the US, in Afghanistan. Relations will have to nurture regionally, with India and with Iran. Their help with be crucial in the push for peace process with the Afghan Taliban. While nursing relations with a hostile Pakistan, they will have to tackle the problem of a porous border and militant sanctuaries on both sides of it. The incoming government will have to prove it can govern better than Karzai. Together, these factors constitute a towering challenge.

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