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Crisis Looms As Clock Winds Down On Afghan 'Unity Government' Deal

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (C) welcomes Afghan President Ashraf Ghani (L) and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah for a dinner at the State Department in Washington in March 2015.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (C) welcomes Afghan President Ashraf Ghani (L) and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah for a dinner at the State Department in Washington in March 2015.

Two years after a contentious, fraud-marred presidential election pushed Afghanistan to the brink of another bloody civil war, the country is once again staring into the abyss.

The compromise power deal signed by political rivals Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah to avert that crisis expires at the end of this month, threatening to upend the beleaguered South Asian state's governing order with no clear alternative at hand.

The so-called national unity government (NUG) effectively installing President Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah in September 2014 was a temporary solution to pave the way for an overhaul of the political system within two years.

But as the U.S.-brokered deal nears its conclusion, Afghanistan's leadership has failed to live up to many of its commitments under the agreement. By now, Afghanistan was meant to hold parliamentary elections, push through sweeping electoral reforms, and amend the 2004 constitution to create the position of prime minister.

The impasse has led to an escalating feud between Ghani and Abdullah, rising tensions among the country's long-warring ethnic groups and factions, and mounting calls from a vocal opposition for the dissolution of the government.

That has raised the specter of a protracted power battle that could give way to a coup d'etat or parallel government by key national players, or even to rekindled ethnic and factional warfare not seen there since the civil war of the 1990s.

The political crisis has been accompanied by the deteriorating security situation in the country, with a resurgent Taliban now holding more Afghan territory than in any year since 2001. With Ghani forced to concentrate on security, his economic plans have stalled and the country remains entrenched in economic distress sparked by the withdrawal of international combat troops in 2014.

Personal Feud

The NUG has been severely strained by a personal feud between Ghani and Abdullah, bitter rivals who both claimed victory in the 2014 election.

Under the power-sharing deal, Abdullah reluctantly accepted the temporary, secondary role of chief executive, comparable to the post of prime minister. In exchange, a Constitutional Loya Jirga -- a gathering of the country's political, ethnic, and religious leaders with the authority to amend the constitution -- would consider the post of an executive prime minister. The two leaders would wield power together until then, although ultimate power would rest with the president.

But Abdullah has long accused Ghani of marginalizing him, making major appointments and decisions without his counsel, and snubbing his calls for reform. His frustrations boiled over recently when he angrily denounced his governing partner as unfit to govern. Although the two leaders have since met, their first meetings in three months, their personal disputes look far from being resolved.

"Abdullah is known among his colleagues as someone who believes in teamwork and has a lot of patience to listen and engage in critical thinking, whilst Ghani is known to have little patience for deliberations and given his background as an expressive lecturer, acts more professorial than politician," says Omar Samad, a former Abdullah adviser and ex-Afghan ambassador to France and Canada.

"Abdullah spends many hours, sometimes till late at night, meeting provincial representatives from across Afghanistan, while Ghani is more comfortable spending that time in his residence reading a book or report and meeting only key yes-men."

Ghani's allies say the former World Bank official is disdainful of small talk and lengthy, frequently inconclusive meetings. Instead, they paint him as a feverish worker who spends most waking hours devising lengthy, concrete plans to build up the country's budding institutions and alleviate Afghans' woeful economic conditions.

Can Abdullah and Ghani find a way to share power?
Can Abdullah and Ghani find a way to share power?

Afghanistan's leadership is hoping for a vote of confidence from an international donors conference scheduled for October 5, at which friendly countries are expected to pledge their continued political and financial support for the government.

New Power Structure

At the heart of the current standoff is a fundamental disagreement over the distribution of power in Afghanistan.

Abdullah, an ethnic Tajik, and Ghani, a Pashtun, embody opposing sides of the divide. Pashtuns, the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, are generally seen to support a centralized state that guarantees their control of the state, and to oppose decentralization because it might lead to ethnic or regional groups seeking autonomy, possibly with the help of their ethnic brethren in neighboring countries.

Non-Pashtuns, especially Tajiks, are seen to believe the current system suffers from being too centralized, with too much power of the state left in the hands of one individual, and to support decentralization because it would enshrine a more inclusive and equitable distribution of power.

The power-sharing agreement Abdullah and Ghani signed commits to replacing the current presidential system, forged from the American model, with a French-style parliamentary system in which the president's role would be checked by that of an empowered prime minister.

But over the past two years, the sides have yet to realize their vision for a new political framework. If parliamentary elections are not held and the constitution is not changed, Ghani and Abdullah could annul the NUG agreement and renegotiate a new deal.

"The political system we will see for a while is the current one, bogged down in an adjourned game with no easy and constitutional way out in sight," says Thomas Ruttig, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, an independent think tank in Kabul. "This, of course, is very dangerous for the stability of the country."

Growing Opposition

Opposition political groups have been piling pressure on the government for failing to hold parliamentary elections originally scheduled for June.

Former President Hamid Karzai, one of the most outspoken critics of the government, has even demanded that a Loya Jirga, a consultative body whose decisions are not legally binding, be convened to weigh in on the government's legitimacy. Karzai's critics accuse him of trying to destabilize the government as he eyes a return to power.

"The extra-constitutional shortcuts suggested by some also do not guarantee that things improve -- as this comes from sectors of the same elites who maneuvered the country into this situation," Ruttig notes.

Key allies of Abdullah, including former warlords and top regional powerbrokers, have threatened to withdraw their support for the government unless Ghani meets their demands by the expiration of the power-sharing deal.

The opposition has also increasingly taken an ethnically charged line.

A new protest movement has emerged north of Kabul calling for the government to organize an official state burial and gravesite for former Afghan King Habibullah Kalakani, the country's only ethnic Tajik monarch. The movement is supported by some prominent ethnic Tajik lawmakers and former militia commanders who have long been skeptical of Ghani.

Meanwhile, Ghani has also been confronted by street protests named the Enlightenment Movement, in which minority Hazaras have accused his government of systematic discrimination.

"While Afghanistan is not an ethnically divided country, ethnicity becomes more pronounced in politics when any one side attempts to unjustly usurp power, impose its will over others, ignore or denigrate other stakeholders, or renege on its pledges," Samad says. "It is dangerous when seen as part and fabric of the leadership mind-set."

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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the editor for Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.