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Scholar Skeptical of Afghan Unity Government Deal

Afghan presidential candidates Ashraf Ghani (L) and Abdullah Abdullah raise their hands during a press conference in Kabul, July 12, 2014.
Afghan presidential candidates Ashraf Ghani (L) and Abdullah Abdullah raise their hands during a press conference in Kabul, July 12, 2014.

Srinjoy Bose, a researcher in international relations and political sociology at the Australian National University, served as an international observer during the two rounds of Afghanistan's presidential elections in April and June.

In an interview with RFE/RL correspondent Mustafa Sarwar, Bose argued that the Afghan presidential candidates Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah do not agree on the parameters of the national unity government deal brokered by the U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry this month.

RFE/RL: Will the agreement brokered by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry between the two Afghan presidential candidates Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah to form a national unity government prove to be a win-win solution to avert a crisis in Afghanistan?

Srinjoy Bose: It may not be a win-win solution, but it is certainly desirable politically, to avoid further crisis. The alternatives may prove disastrous.

RFE/RL: Some argue that forming a national unity government in which both Ghani and Abdullah camps are present is going to be a risky move for the future of the country. What is your view on this?

Srinjoy Bose
Srinjoy Bose

Bose: That is what a colleague and I argue in a recent piece. We mean to suggest there are significant structural and institutional issues that the candidates--especially if they form a unity government, in whatever form--will need to address if Afghanistan is to avoid similar crises in the future. A unity government is, after all, a Band-Aid solution, and there are concerns therein. For starters, the parameters and mechanisms of a unity government have not been agreed upon. This means that the two candidates have different understandings of what constitutes a unity government: for Abdullah, it is power sharing; Ghani does not think so--he sees it more as a coalition government wherein posts are awarded according to a rules-based system.

Second, question marks remain as to how the camps will appoint people to posts. In other words, how will power be distributed? Lacking a party system [and] culture, most power brokers who have pledged allegiance [to the candidates] did so in the hope they would be rewarded with a share of power in government. With a unity government, not all of those power brokers will stand to gain. Third, a unity government may result in policy paralysis.

This is because the two factions may be locked in severe competition, with their working relationship resulting in acrimony. This, in turn, may witness political actors turning to their power bases to solidify their positions or help implement policy. All of this indicates that formal institutions may be undermined, thus derailing the democratic and governance project.

RFE/RL: President Karzai is seemingly not happy with the idea of forming a national unity government, which in principle might lead to a parliamentary system in Afghanistan. Why do you think Karzai is worried about a negotiated settlement between the two rival candidates?

Bose: What I can say with some degree of confidence is that a unity government may not entertain negotiations with the Taliban. The Abdullah coalition is likely to object [to such negotiations]. This will undo Karzai's efforts aimed at striking a peace deal. What is also known is that Karzai prefers a strong state privileging the powers of the president, while at the same time encouraging a participatory system of governance where the head of state consults local leaders in decision-making. He truly believes that this combination is what is best for the country where western models of governance are otherwise ill-suited.

In a recent interview published in "The Atlantic Magazine," he points to the country's social and political structures, which are inimical to Western models of [representative] governance; he sees community governance and a participatory system as the keys to maintaining peace, and feels that a parliamentary system will dismiss tribal politics and the roles of tribal elders whose counsel Karzai has encouraged and relied on in the past.

RFE/RL: Is president Karzai really ready for what has been called the first democratic transfer of power to either of the two candidates?

Bose: He's ready to transfer power to his preferred candidate, Ghani. Karzai may be thinking that having Ghani in power will help preserve some of the patronage networks he has cultivated over the past 13 years. There is a saying in politics: a politician is a rooster one day and a feather duster the next; Karzai will want to ensure he does not end up thus.

RFE/RL: Given the current situation, what are the possible best and worst-case scenarios for the country?

Bose: The worst-case scenario is obvious--civil war. If that happens, we will witness the return of the Taliban and/or Pakistan's increased control over Afghan affairs. I am, however, hopeful. I think the candidates will make it work somehow. But I would impress upon them the need to reform the institutions if a unity government is to bear fruit in the future.

What is uncertain is how the power brokers will react should a unity government be realized; they will need to be reined in. Here it becomes tricky. The camps may deem it necessary to offer incentives to these power brokers and stakeholders to keep them from undermining the unity government. This may prove detrimental and weaken state institutions, much like how the United States accommodated, supported, and installed strongmen in the post-2001 administration in order to secure their cooperation.