Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Political Landscape

From Parallel Governments to a New Form of Power-Sharing? Afghanistan’s ongoing post-election crisis

Ali Yawar Adili 31 min

Both parties claiming to be Afghanistan’s president are sending out signals that they are moving toward a new power-sharing formula. It is not clear, however, whether these signals indicate that the post-election political standoff is nearing its end. Possibly, they are just designed to reassure Afghans and the country’s international backers, the most important of which, the United States, has already cut or threatened to cut aid in its bid to get Afghanistan’s leaders “to compromise.” Each party has a different idea about how to share power and each has rejected the other’s proposals. Afghan mediation efforts are hampered by red lines, an unwillingness to be seen to go back to a variation of the 2014-20 National Unity Government (NUG) and the fact that the key figures involved are not neutral, but are widely believed to be manoeuvring for future political roles for themselves. In this report, AAN’s Ali Yawar Adili looks at how the political impasse has evolved since the simultaneous inaugurations on 9 March of Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, attempts to mediate and what underlies this latest political crisis. 

President Ashraf Ghani (R) and hs rival/partner Dr Abdullah, with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg (C) in Kabul on 29 February 2020. Photo: Wakil Kohsar / AFP.

Afghanistan has been beset now for over four months by a still unresolved post-election political impasse. This is counting only from the day (22 December 2019) when – already after significant delays – the preliminary result of the 28 September 2019 presidential election was announced (AAN reporting here). The country still has no government that is accepted by the main contenders in the election. 

A fresh phase of this impasse followed the declaration by the Independent Election Commission (IEC) on 18 February 2020 that incumbent Muhammad Ashraf Ghani had won the election, by just over 50 per cent of the vote. This spared him a run-off against the runner-up, Ghani’s erstwhile coalition partner and chief executive in the National Unity Government (NUG), Dr Abdullah Abdullah. Abdullah not only did not accept this outcome, but also proclaimed himself the winner that same evening (AAN’s reporting here). Other candidates also rejected the results (see here and here). One, former intelligence chief Rahmatullah Nabil suggested that a “government of national reconciliation,” including the Taleban, should be formed. (1)

In response to efforts at brokering an end to the impasse, Abdullah insisted the result be nullified and a power-sharing government should be formed by himself and Ghani based on a political agreement, not unlike the 2014 deal which set up their National Unity Government. Ghani refused to acquiesce to this demand, arguing he did not want a repetition of an arrangement which is widely considered unsuccessful (see for example this ICG report). Ghani himself has been offering Abdullah only the leadership in the peace process which has yet to even start (AAN analysis here).

Meanwhile, as the incumbent, Ghani was in a far stronger position and has been able gain direct and indirect support, including implicit recognition as the election winner, however reluctantly given by US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad and other diplomats and military personnel choosing to attend his swearing-in ceremony). Since then, Ghani has managed to consolidate his position as head of state. 

The stand-off between the two leaders continued as the United States and the Taleban signed their agreement (on 29 February) on US troop withdrawal in return for Taleban guarantees on terrorism, and as the Taleban resumed their campaign of violence thereafter (see AAN reporting here and here.) It also continued despite COVID-19 promising yet more deaths and economic harm; closed borders and locked-down cities hurt people and government revenues. Even the US announcement to cut aid to Afghanistan by one billion dollars this year, a serious move given that the entire government budget for 1399/2020 is USD 5.5 billion (although it has rowed back from that somewhat in a later statement) has as yet brought no compromise.

Probably also out of fear of being isolated as a result of Ghani’s possible buying off of his allies, Abdullah now does ask for a leadership in the peace process, but as an executive prime minister with a ‘focus’ on peace, and with substantial executive authorities in terms of appointments and budget, and protocol. Under sustained international pressure, however, both sides have been sending out signals that they are backing down from earlier maximal positions and are working on a compromise or are even close to one. On 1 May, Abdullah tweeted to assure the people “that efforts by respected national personalities to resolve the political crisis have borne fruit. We have made progress in negotiations & reached tentative agreement on a range of principles. Work on details is underway to finalize the agreement.” Two days earlier media reported that he had submitted a new proposal for power-sharing to the Palace.

Ghani’s spokesman, Sediq Sediqi, rather generally said on Twitter on 1 May, without mentioning Abdullah, that “Progress has been made in the ongoing negotiations and discussions on important political issues and matters to resolve them politically.” He did not speak of an imminent deal but said only that soon “the government will present its official position.” In contrast, Abdullah spokesman Faridun Khwazun said on 2 May that an “agreement” had been reached “in principle” and that the draft included proposals that Abdullah lead a high council for peace talks and have a half-share in government appointments (more on Abdullah’s proposals below). There were also slightly optimistic tunes from US Secretary of Defence Mark Esper who spoke about a “possible new power-sharing agreement coming out” on 4 May.

The following report now takes a detailed look at what happened up to this point to put on recordhow this political crisis has evolved since February 2020. 

It first records events since the Independent Election Commission (IEC) declared Ashraf Ghani the winner of the 2019 presidential election on 18 February. This section also examines the reaction of Dr Abdullah and other candidates, and of Afghanistan’s international backers and the two men’s parallel inaugurations. 

The report then looks at the three major efforts to mediate between Abdullah and Ghani, carried out by:

  • The ‘Karzai group’: former president Hamed Karzai plus three senior jihadi leaders or officials, former speaker of the Wolesi Jirga Muhammad Yunus Qanuni, former vice-president and current head of the High Peace Council Muhammad Karim Khalili, and former MP Abdul Rab Rasul Sayyaf.
  • A parliamentary delegation of 40 MPs
  • A delegation of senior female politicians, including state minister for human rights and international affairs and former chair of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission Dr Sima Samar

The report details Ghani’s appointments since his inauguration, before looking at international pressure on the two men to resolve their differences. It ends with an examination of Abdullah’s initial demands and the more recent change in his position, which may allow for a possible reconciliation with Ghani. This includes a look at his latest proposal for a political agreement (a translation of the text of which is in an annex to this report).

Immediate reactions on the election result

Apart from Abdullah and other candidates, several other political actors were also sceptical at the result, which had given Ghani 50.6 per cent of the vote (and 39.5 per cent to Abdullah), a margin so small and the repercussions so large (no need for a second round) that any concerns about lack of transparency or vote-rigging were inevitably magnified. Former president Hamed Karzai, for instance, issued a statement saying, “Given the country’s overall situation and especially what happened regarding the process in the last five months and the announcement of its result, it is very natural that the announced results are not accepted.” 

Afghanistan’s international supporters were initially cautious in their reactions. The European Union was the first to recognise Ghani as the new head of state, a day after the IEC’s announcement. The EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy/Vice-President of the European Commission, Josep Borrell, called Ghani “to congratulate him on the outcome of the electoral process,” but he was still short of mentioning his victory. He also said that, “months of intensive verification and an appeal process engaging all interested parties had come to an end.” Abdullah sent a critical letter to Borrell on 20 February calling his congratulatory call “against the expectation of the people of Afghanistan, electoral teams, and against the EU’s constructive and impartial stance.” He asked for “necessary clarification” from the EU delegation based in Kabul.

UNAMA also issued a highly cautious and non-committal statement the same day, only taking “note of the announcement of the final results for Afghanistan’s presidential election and the work of the country’s electoral bodies leading up to the announcement.” It also took “note of concerns that have been made by candidates and their supporters following the announcement of the final results,” and encouraged “the electoral management bodies to address the candidates’ understandable desire to have clarity on decisions taken related to audits and recounts.”

A week later, on 25 February, the United States took a similar stance, again merely noting the IEC’s “announcement” on the 28 September election “in favor of President Ashraf Ghani.” This statement followed Ghani’s agreement to postpone his inauguration (media report here) which had been scheduled for 27 February. The US thanked “the Afghan government for agreeing to postpone the presidential inauguration” to “ensure adequate time for Afghans to agree on these matters.” US diplomats and military personnel, as well as other western diplomats, attended Ghani’s ceremony, helping him to further consolidate his position as elected president. Few foreign dignitaries attended Abdullah’s rival ceremony. Even so, Ghani’s position was only strengthened; the political impasse between the two men and their camps remained. 

Meanwhile, Abdullah appointed four provincial governors of his own for Sar-e Pul (22 February), Jawzjan (23 February), Samangan (24 February) and Baghlan; the Panjshir governor switched allegiance to him (media report here). These are among the 18 provinces where Abdullah had gained a majority of votes (AAN reporting here). In the aftermath of the inaugurations, Abdullah threatened to appoint more governors. AAN heard from sources close to him that he wanted to appoint governors at least for the other provinces where he had a majority of votes. But Abdullah refrained from more severe confrontation by, for example, not appointing his own cabinet.

Parallel inaugurations

The postponement of the rival inaugurations – initially planned for 27 February – under international pressure allowed for the signing of the US-Taleban deal on 29 February as well as the declaration between the US and Afghan government on the same day (AAN analysis here). US envoy Khalilzad came to Kabul to lead an effort aimed at brokering an agreement between Ghani and Abdullah. As The New York Times reported, he shuttled between the two men “half a dozen times” the day before the inaugurations, “with the meetings stretching to the early hours.” Khalilzad managed to get Ghani and Abdullah “to meet face-to-face close to midnight,” the paper reported, “but there was no breakthrough.” A last-ditch effort to get an agreement pushed the inauguration scheduled for the morning of 9 March to the afternoon, but eventually the bizarre thing happened anyway: parallel inaugurations held in adjacent compounds in the Afghan capital. 

On the same day, 9 March, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a “strong warning,” saying his administration would “oppose any action to establish a parallel government, and any use of force to resolve political differences.” 

At home, Karzai issued a statement a day after the inaugurations, on 10 March, blaming the situation on “the result of the humiliating and divisive policy and action [pursued by] the US towards the people of Afghanistan.” He said that if the US “truly wanted to resolve the ongoing crisis, by [taking] constructive and timely action prior to the holding of inauguration ceremonies, it could have prevented division and political instability resulting from them [inaugurations].” 

One of Ghani’s first actions post-inauguration was to decree the dissolution of Abdullah’s office of chief executive, saying all decrees and orders regarding the establishment of the office of chief executive and council of ministers, the appointment of the chief executive and his deputies, the designation of some of the president’s authorities to the chief executive of the national unity government were invalid and cancelled as of 10 March, the day after the inaugurations (media report here). AAN heard that, immediately after the announcement of the final results, Ghani had stopped salary payments for parts of Abdullah’s administration. (2) 

A day later, on 12 March, Abdullah responded in a statement that, after the swearing-in of “the president of the all-inclusive government,” ie himself, the term of the National Unity Government had in practice ended. The new all-inclusive government would officially introduce a chief executive through a decree. It also said that Ghani was no longer the president and thus his decrees and orders were invalid. Abdullah also instructed the civilian and military personnel of the former office of the chief executive to continue their daily duties and responsibilities as before. 

AAN heard from sources close to Abdullah that he had mobilised around 300 elite security personnel from his own protection detail as well as some of personal guards of key allies to ensure his office would not be taken over by commando forces at Ghani’s behest.  The sources alleged Ghani had planned to send commandos to take over Abdullah’s office.

Ghani also tried to prevent diplomats from engaging with Abdullah. For instance, on 12 March, UNAMA’s (now former) head Tadamichi Yamamoto met Dr Abdullah in his Sapedar Palace and was then summoned by acting Foreign Minister Muhammad Harun Chakhansuri (who has now been replaced by Hanif Atmar, see below) the following day to be reportedly reminded “that the electoral process has reached to its end” and Ghani had been recognised and taken oath as the president.

Abdullah and his allies also tried to build alliances with other political actors. After a meeting hosted by Muhammad Karim Khalili and attended by him and his key allies (Hezb-e Wahdat-e Mardom leader Muhammad Mohaqeq, Jamiat’s acting leader Salahuddin Rabbani, Abdullah’s first running-mate Babur Farahmand, former minister of commerce Anwar ul-Haq Ahadi and Sayed Eshaq Gailani), as well as Karzai, his former minister of foreign affairs, Rangin Dadfar Spanta, Hekmatyar and the leader of Mahaz-e Melli party Sayed Hamed Gailani, they issued a joint statement saying, “The national crisis emerging out of election fraud has affected the national peace process and might render the situation even more critical.” It called for the crisis to be resolved “logically and sensibly” and “through talks and understanding.”

The political repercussions of the 9 March parallel presidential inaugurations and Abdullah’s initial appointments of governors were grave anyhow. “They split the country today,” was the comment from former deputy minister of defence Tamim Asey, “into three political geographies with two presidents and one amir” referring to the fact that, apart from two rival presidents, also the Taleban leader claims to be the head of state. The same is the case on the provincial level where there are also Taleban ‘shadow governors’. There were also concerns as to whether different parts of the Afghan security forces would remain united and whether particular units might take sides in the dispute.

Domestic and foreign mediation

A) Foreign mediation

As mentioned above, US envoy Khalilzad had tried, immediately before the parallel inaugurations, to find a solution for the electoral dispute between Ghani and Abdullah, but failed. Two days after the ceremonies, on 11 March, Kabul daily newspaper Hasht-e Sobh reported some detail about those efforts. It published two proposals, one made, it said, by Abdullah and one by Khalilzad, which had been exchanged between the two men before the inaugurations. Abdullah had reportedly proposed that the two candidates would share out appointments of all senior posts, ministers, deputies, ambassadors, governors, appointed senators and heads of independent bodies such as the NDS, taking into account “meritocracy” and the need for a balanced ethnic and gender composition. One candidate, either himself or Ghani, would be president of the inclusive government and appoint 40 per cent of government posts. The other candidate would take an executive role of prime minister or chief executive and appoint 60 per cent of senior government posts. 

This is different from the formula of the 2014 NUG agreement (see the text here) which provided that both sides would be “equitably represented at the [government’s] membership level.” The term ‘equitable’ (barabarguna) became a bone of content and was interpreted by the Abdullah camp as a 50-50 per cent sharing. Now, Abdullah had argued that, as the president had the more influential position, this should be balanced by a smaller share for him here.

Khalilzad’s proposal, according to Hasht-e Sobh, was entitled “Afghan Political Accommodation: Three Stability Pillars” (ie security, governance and peace). It envisaged an “inclusive cabinet” and local officials, with 40 per cent of cabinet seats going to Dr Abdullah’s allies. Under the peace pillar, it provided for the establishment of a “Supreme Peace Council” to be chaired by Abdullah who would report to the president. It also envisaged an “inclusive/qualified Intra-Afghan Negotiating Team” which would report to the council. 

On the same day, Khalilzad told Tolonews that Ghani had finally accepted the suggestion that Abdullah leads the peace process, implying that it did not come from Ghani. However, neither of these proposals proved acceptable to Abdullah and Ghani and each man held his own inauguration. 

B) Mediation by Afghans

Three major domestic groups have tried to mediate between Ghani and Abdullah. 

They are:

  • The Karzai group

The first group of mediators was made up of four big-hitters, former president Hamed Karzai and three senior jihadi leaders or officials, former speaker of the Wolesi Jirga, interior minister and vice president Muhammad Yunus Qanuni, former vice-president and current head of the High Peace Council Muhammad Karim Khalili, and former MP Abdul Rab Rasul Sayyaf. It is interesting to note that Karzai had opposed elections in the first place; five days before the election, on 23 September, along with a self-styled “group of national personalities, jihadi leaders, representatives of civil society and citizens of Afghanistan [concerned] about peace and the presidential election” he issued a statement saying that realities show that the election would increase the crisis by sowing more division among the people.

Qanuni had been Hanif Atmar’s first running-mate, but, after Atmar’s ticket fell apart, he joined Karzai in decrying the election. Khalili is a key electoral ally of Abdullah’s and had introduced his aide and party member Asadullah Sa’adati as Abdullah’s second running-mate (AAN reporting here). Sayyaf who had been a major Karzai backer during the latter’s tenures (2001-14) has been widely viewed as supporting Ghani in the election.

The group’s attempted mediation was an evolution of an effort by Karzai and Sayyaf made before the inaugurations. They met both Ghani and Abdullah on 24 February to “consult and exchange views on the country’s complex situation and ways out of the crisis,” according to Karzai’s Facebook page

The Palace reported on 2 April that Ghani had met this group (in its new four-member composition) where “there was detailed and comprehensive discussion about the country’s current situation, as well as the peace process.” The group issued an optimistic statement on 5 April:

[T]horough efforts at reaching an understanding and cooperation are going on very well. In order to conclude these efforts and reach a favourable conclusion, we suggest that his Excellency Dr Muhammad Ashraf Ghani forbear from the appointments of government officials for an appropriate time, and his excellency Dr Abdullah Abdullah extend the period specified for reaching an understanding.

In response, Ghani’s Public and Strategic Affairs Advisor, Wahid Omar, tweeted agreement on this point on the same day, 5 April, that “at the request of the country’s political leaders and elders,” Ghani had halted the appointment of cabinet members “for five days so that more opportunity is provided for political talks.” 

Abdullah also welcomed the statement by “the country’s leaders and elders who make an effort to [find] a way out of the political crisis.” He extended the period for negotiations and announced his readiness to cooperate with the group.

  • Parliamentary mediators

A 40-member Wolesi Jirga delegation met both Ghani and Abdullah to ask them to resolve their political dispute, as reported on 3 April by Wolesi Jirga speaker Mir Rahman Rahmani. He wrote that the delegation had met Dr Abdullah the week before, with the aim of resolving the political dispute. He said Abdullah had welcomed the Wolesi Jirga’s decision to resolve the dispute and promised to cooperate with the delegation. Earlier, on 30 March, Abdullah reported that he had met the parliamentary delegation who “expressed their concern regarding the existing political crisis” and stressed on the need for “an immediate solution” to it. Abdullah said he was ready for “constructive and reasonable talks to resolve the ongoing political crisis.”

Speaker Rahmani said that the same delegation also met Ghani, on 2 April and shared their recommendations and views regarding the political dispute between the two leaders. The delegation, Rahmani said, asked Ghani to show selflessness, considering the ‘current circumstances’ (ie coronavirus). He said Ghani had promised to cooperate with the delegation. On the same day, the Palace also shared a video containing parts of Ghani’s remarks to the MPs. The video shows Ghani speaking about the new risks posed by coronavirus and arguing that a “two-headed government” would not be able to contain them. He offered Dr Abdullah the same position as envisaged in Khalilzad’s proposal, namely to undertake the “management and leadership of Afghanistan’s peace process” and asked the MPs to reach a conclusion with Abdullah on this. Ghani wondered, “Should Afghanistan’s political class” unite or not? He said unity would be achieved through the High Peace Council being re-established and Dr Abdullah accepting to be its chairmanship – ie at this point avoiding any suggestion of bringing Abdullah into the government at even the cabinet level. Ghani also tried to attach incentives to his offer saying that Abdullah, as the head of the High Peace Council, would have a ‘vice-president’s protocol’: “His security facilities, budget and decision-making method are all discussable,” said Ghani. “We have complete flexibility [to discuss these things].” 

  • The women’s delegation

Mediation was also attempted by a group of senior female political figures, most notably the state minister for human rights and international affairs and former chair of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission Dr Sima Samar. (3) However, Ghani did not agree to meet them, according to an open letter published by Samar on 7 April and addressed to Ghani, after the rejection (see a copy in Dari here). The letter said the group had met Dr Abdullah around 12 days earlier and he had said he would be interested in an agreement for “the sake of the national interest.” Addressing Ghani, the letter said that “unfortunately, despite repeated contacts with your Excellency’s office, we were unable to meet you.” The group, with a tone of complaint, wrote that they had witnessed him meeting other groups, such as the Karzai’s group and the MP delegation. “We hope that the ongoing problems are resolved through their mediation,” the letter said, adding, “We also believe that the knot that can be opened with hands should not be opened by teeth.”

It is not clear whether any of these three groups offered their own formula for resolving the standoff.

Meanwhile, Ghani has also been attempting to lure Abdullah’s allies over to his side. On 12 April, Jombesh spokesperson Bashir Ahmad Tahyanj claimed in a video that the Palace had reached out to every member of the Stability and Integration team leadership with promises of money and posts, but that all had refused the offers and insisted on continuing to back Abdullah (media report here). 

Cabinet and other high profile appointments

In his inauguration speech on 9 March, Ghani said he would postpone cabinet appointments for two weeks to allow for “the necessary opportunity for cooperation and alignment with all prominent political factions involved in the election.” 

In practice, he started the following appointments almost three weeks after the inauguration: 

  • Chief of Staff: Muhammad Shaker Kargar (30 March), an Uzbek and initially an ally of Jombesh leader Abdul Rashid Dostum, later allied with Karzai, then Atmar and finally Ghani; he had served in various ministerial and ambassadorial positions (Palace statement here
  • Acting Minister of Finance: Abdul Hadi Arghandiwal, the leader of one of the Hezb-e Islami wings (AAN background here) and a Ghani supporter in the 2019 presidential election (31 March). Arghandiwal had previously worked as minister of economy and presidential advisor (Palace statement here). (4) 
  • Acting Director of NDS: Ahmad Zia Seraj (1 April). The Palace said Seraj had worked in different departments of the NDS for 18 years, including as deputy for operations and most recently as acting head, and that he has a master’s degree in defence studies from “outside the country.”
  • Kabul Mayor: former Ghazni MP (2005-10) and recently presidential advisor, Muhammad Daud Sultanzoy (1 April) 
  • Acting Minister of Information and Culture: Muhammad Taher Zuhair (3 April), moved from the governorship of Bamyan (Zuhair was a close aide to Khalili but supported Ghani and Danesh in the 2019 election; Palace statement here)  
  • Acting Minister of Foreign Affairs: former minister of interior, education and development and 2019 presidential candidate Muhammad Hanif Atmar (4 April; Palace Statement here).

Ghani then halted the appointments on 5 April (as described above), except one more high profile appointment. On 9 April, he made his top aide and senior advisor for political affairs, Dr Fazl Mahmud Fazly, the new General Director of the Office of Administrative Affairs. This is a cabinet post, although one not needing parliamentary approval and carries a lot of weight and influence (Palace statement here).

Ghani’s appointments seemed to serve various purposes, including strengthening his image as president versus Abdullah, co-opting some former allies who had become alienated from him and rewarding allies and close aides. 

While Ghani has started holding meetings of his new cabinet, Abdullah has avoided any further actions, including introducing his chief executive which he had indicated earlier that he would do. (5) 

Post-inauguration pressure 

International pressure for a resolution of the crisis has meanwhile been building. On 23 March, US Secretary of State Pompeo, after visiting Kabul, issued a statement saying that he had travelled to Kabul “with an urgent message. He spoke directly to the nation’s leaders to impress upon them the need to compromise for the sake of the Afghan people.”  The statement said:

The United States deeply regrets that Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and former Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah have informed Secretary Pompeo that they have been unable to agree on an inclusive government that can meet the challenges of governance, peace, and security, and provide for the health and welfare of Afghan citizens.

In addition to weighing in against both Ghani and Abdullah, the statement said:

[T]he U.S. government will initiate a review of the scope of our cooperation with Afghanistan. Among other steps, we are today announcing a responsible adjustment to our spending in Afghanistan and immediately reducing assistance by $1 billion this year. We are prepared to reduce by another $1 billion in 2021.

Given that the entire 2020/1399 government budget is for USD 5.5 billion, this was a significant threat.

In an apparent effort to head off anyone considering a coup d’état, Pompeo’s statement also said the US administration would “not back security operations that are politically motivated, nor support political leaders who order such operations.”

Ghani and Abdullah provided their own accounts of the visit. In a television address, Ghani, flanked by his vice presidents Amrullah Saleh and Muhammad Sarwar Danesh, his special representative Muhammad Yusuf Ghazanfar as well as his security and political advisors, respectively Hamdullah Moheb and Fazel Fazly, said that he considered their negotiations with Pompeo “positive and constructive.” He also reported back from his meeting with Dr Abdullah, saying he wanted to designate a “crucial role in the peace process” for him, as well as cabinet role. He claimed that Abdullah had insisted on changing the constitution “overnight based on an understanding between him and us” – that is to say – he demanded such structure which is diametrically opposed to the constitution. 

Regarding the US cut to aid, Ghani said he could assure the people that this would not have a direct impact on key sectors and claimed that through “austerity, as well as exploring alternative resources” they would fill the gap. He also said the aid had not yet been cut, but had been made conditional and they would try to convince the US to maintain its full support through talk and negotiation. 

Two days later, on 26 March, Abdullah told a press conference (the video here) that Pompeo had said to him that he had not come with “the intention to mediate,” but had stressed seriously the need for an immediate resolution of the political-electoral crisis. He said Pompeo had told him: “I have not come with a formula, but Afghan political leaders are responsible for finding a solution to the crisis.” 

Abdullah also claimed that efforts by Karzai and Sayyaf had not yielded any result due to one “clear reason,” that “one side had insisted on [maintaining] its position.” He said that, in his one-on-one meeting with Ghani, he had wanted to find a solution with “complete flexibility.” He suggested that “three to five people from among the national personalities [should] intervene in the case, so that the problem is solved,” adding, “We will spare no cooperation to resolve the crisis.” In response to Ghani’s televised address, Abdullah said that “the spirit of the constitution embodies respect for the people’s votes, transparent and fair elections, justice, honesty and equality.” Yet he said, “Legislative decrees were issued against the constitution and parallel agencies created.” This was building on his statement issued two days earlier saying that Pompeo’s visit had “created an opportunity for solving the crisis, but unfortunately this opportunity was not utilised well.” 

Since Pompeo’s visit, US officials have continued to castigate Ghani and Abdullah. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Alice Wells, for instance, tweeted on 6 April: “As the world gets slammed by COVID-19, with devastating economic consequences for all, donors are frustrated and fed up by personal agendas being advanced ahead of the welfare of the Afghan people.” A day before, on 5 April, she had tweeted: “It can’t be business as usual for international donors in #Afghanistan. International aid requires partnership with an inclusive government and we all must hold Afghan leaders accountable to agree on a governing arrangement.”

Similarly, an EU delegation, comprising ambassadors of EU member states based in Kabul and of Norway, called, on 16 April, on “all parties to the current political negotiations to reach an agreement with the highest sense of urgency.” The delegation also said that, “Each day that passes without a consolidated governmental team exposes the Afghan population to greater dangers, undermines the credibility of the democratic institutions and discourages European partners.” A spokesperson for Ghani, Dawa Khan Minapal, responded that the government was conducting its activities normally and focusing on the fight against coronavirus and the peace process (media report here). 

Hasht-e Sobh in its 20 April editorial said that, “The EU in its recent statement behaved as though Afghanistan does not yet have a government.” In a follow-up to their statement, the delegation held an audio call with Abdullah on 29 April, when they stressed that “the political divisions must end now.” According to an EU statement, they told Abdullah that they “count on him as a responsible leader to help reach a political accommodation that can federate the democratic forces behind a strong republic for the betterment of all Afghans.” This seemed aimed at encouraging him to accept the ‘leadership of peace process’ option proposed by Ghani as soon as possible.

Abdullah also received a call on 26 March from UN Secretary General António Guterres calling, among other matters, for a “quick resolution of th political crisis.” On 31 March, also German Minister of State (deputy minister) for Foreign Affairs, Niels Annen phoned him, “drawing Afghan leaders’ attention to [the need for] taking necessary and urgent actions to fight the dangerous coronavirus” and expressing the need for “unity between political leaders.” 

There have also been growing domestic calls on the two leaders to come to an agreement amid the spread of the coronavirus. The Meshrano Jirga held a special session on 19 April. It had summoned security officials to the house to brief the senators on the security situation but the officials did not show up. Other items on the agenda were the fight against coronavirus and the standoff between Ghani and Abdullah. The senators called on both men to agree on an “inclusive government” (media report here

Abdullah’s demands and proposals 

Abdullah’s position was that the election outcome should be nullified and the post of prime minister be created. For instance, on 4 April, Tolonews quoted his campaign spokesman Khwazun as saying that “First, the election results should be nullified, then the proposals put forward by us and the opponent be discussed to reach an understanding. Any discussion will not yield results until the results are nullified.” 

However, amid growing pressure from Afghanistan’s international donors, he has backed down from this position and returned to the proposal offered to him by Ghani before the inauguration. On 19 April, Ariana News reported sources close to Dr Abdullah saying that his proposal for the formation of a participatory government had been finalised. Abdullah asked for the chairmanship of the Council for Reconciliation, 50 per cent of cabinet posts and authority to appoint a number of governors. 

However, this new framework for negotiation caused division within his team as Jamiat’s acting leader (and former minister of foreign affairs) Salahuddin Rabbani and deputy leader Ahmad Zia Massud both strongly opposed the proposal. Other members of Abdullah’s team have tried to persuade Rabbani to back the proposal (media report here). In contrast, AAN heard from sources close to Abdullah’s team that some of the key members of his team such as Mohaqeq and Dostum have criticised Abdullah for not taking up a more political battle with Ghani well before the outbreak of coronavirus, which has hamstrung the team’s political manoeuvring. They have called on him to strike a deal with Ghani within the framework of leading the peace process. 

This internal division had delayed submission of his proposal to the Palace (as Abdullah worries about losing more of Jamiat’s backing as some of Jamiat heavyweights such as Qanuni, former minister of water and energy and Herat governor Ismail Khan and former Balkh governor Atta Muhammad Nur had either backed Ghani or decried the election), but amid growing pressure, AAN was told by a source on 29 April that the proposal had been submitted to Karzai’s group to take it to the Palace. 

Two days later, on 1 May, Abdullah himself tweeted to assure the people “that efforts by respected national personalities to resolve the political crisis have borne fruit. We have made progress in negotiations & reached tentative agreement on a range of principles. Work on details is underway to finalize the agreement.” AAN heard from sources that he has been working with Ghani’s National Security Advisor Hamdullah Moheb on this. Abdullah’s tweet came after Kabul daily Etilaat-e Roz as well as Hasht-e Sobh published, on 29 April, a copy of Abdullah’s proposal (full text in annex 1). Abdullah’s proposal introduces a number of new institutions, obviously in order to circumvent Ghani’s rejection of a power-sharing cabinet. 

First, a Supreme State Council of “political leaders and national personalities” would be established to “advise the president and leadership of the government on big national issues, Afghanistan’s relations with countries of the world, strengthening national unity, realisation of social justice and government’s structural reforms.” This would resemble the Jihadi leaders’ advisory body of the Karzai years, however in a formally institutionalised way.

Second, there would be an Office of the Executive Prime Minister with a Focus on Peace (Sedarat-e Ejrayi ba Mehwariyat-e Solh). This ‘thematic’ executive prime minister position would be established based on a political agreement and become official with the signature of the two sides and would be based in Abdullah’s 2014-20 seat, the Sapedar. It would be different from the office of chief executive under the NUG which was created by presidential decree. This prime minister would lead all affairs related to the national peace process and in terms of protocol, security and formalities would be the second highest position in the country (after the president) and would have a separate budgetary unit (similar to the situation when he was NUG Chief Executive).

Furthermore, Dostum would be appointed by Abdullah’s team as deputy to the commander-in-chief, ie the president, and be promoted to the rank of marshal through a presidential decree. The prime minister would appoint half of all ministers, heads of independent directorates (quasi-ministries), deputy ministers and ambassadors as well as two out of the four key security officials (National Security Advisor, Ministers of Defence and Interior and NDS chief). The provincial governors would be appointed by whoever has secured higher votes in a given province (Ghani got more votes in 16 provinces and Abdullah in 18). 

Abdullah’s proposal also calls for “fundamental reform” on a number of issues and the holding of provincial and district council elections “as soon as possible”  and of mayors. The existence of elected district councils would enable a Loya Jirga to be held if possible, which is needed for approving any possible change to the constitution. Along with a reform of the electoral institutions, this was already included in the 2014 NUG agreement. The proposal also envisages a commission to draft amendments to the constitution to be set up a maximum of one year after the agreement. The prime minister would appoint its chair. 

mediation delegation would be appointed with the role of preventing violations of the agreement. The UN representative and other international authorities would also be asked to oversee the proper implementation of the political agreement in coordination with this delegation. A joint technical team would be formed to identify instances of violation. The agreement would be valid till the end of the government’s term.

However, on the same day, Hasht-e Sobh reported sources from the Palace as saying that the Palace did not agree to the proposal published by the media. The sources also said that the basic framework which had so far been agreed upon were: Abdullah’s chairmanship of the High Council for Reconciliation, granting special protocol to him, allocating budget for him and representation of a number of the members of his political team within the government. AAN also heard from diplomatic sources on 5 May that the proposal published by media was now an old version and the new one did not include the prime-ministership with focus on peace. In contrast, on 6 May, Hasht-e Sobh quoted sources involved in the negotiations that the two sides had agreed on the framework of the proposal prepared by Abdullah and were working out the details. This might indicate that the negotiations might still be lengthy and a possible compromise remain distant. 

Conclusion

This is the second time in a row that a presidential election has proved destabilising and that an extra-constitutional arrangement will be needed for it to be resolved. Afghanistan’s electoral institutions and voting system (but not the institution of elections as such) have again been found lacking. Moreover, the strong ethno-regional polarisation instigated by the fragmented elites in order to win elections and reflected in the behaviour of voters (AAN reporting here) has only made the political dispute over the results more dangerous. 

It is currently not clear whether the Ghani and the Abdullah camps are really moving toward a new, mutually accepted power-sharing formula and how that might finally look; whether positive signals indicate that the post-election political standoff is nearing its end; or whether these signs are meant to reassure Afghans and the country’s international backers that things are moving in the right direction. While Abdullah is proactively and publicly promoting his proposals (he is forced to do so as he is in the weaker position vis-à-vis the, although reluctantly, internationally recognised president), Ghani’s party seems still to be holding its cards still close to their chests. A major question is whether Ghani will finally be really ready to hand over the leadership role in the peace process to Abdullah and how independent he would be in such a position. 

The mediation efforts by Afghan heavyweights has been hampered by: both sides’ red lines which go back to the experience of the largely unsuccessful NUG; both parties’ unwillingness for the new government to be seen just as a variation of the 2014-20 NUG and; the fact that key figures involved in Afghan attempts to mediate a solution are nor neutral, but widely believed to be striving for future political roles for themselves.

The bureaucratic and quite plodding language used by the two camps, by mediators and other Afghan political figures belie the gravity of this situation. Afghans are currently facing a disputed presidential leadership, the coronavirus crisis threatening lives, the economy and government revenues, a major cut to aid and a Taleban boosted by their agreement with the US, appearing confident and aggressive on the battlefield. The health of the nation still waits for a resolution, at least, to the dispute between Doctors Ghani and Abdullah.

Edited and input by Kate Clark and Thomas Ruttig


(1) Some others have picked up this idea in a similar way. For example, political analyst Tabesh Forugh, in an article “Afghanistan needs a Government of National Reconciliation” published on 6 April, said that “The way to bring these two processes together is to create a Government of National Reconciliation (GNR) with, ideally, Ghani responsible for governance and Abdullah for the peace and reconciliation efforts. The GNR would be fundamentally different from the National Unity Government (NUG) which has run Afghanistan for the past five years. Unlike the NUG, which had a reform agenda, the mandate of the GNR would be to focus on negotiations with the Taliban to reach a political settlement on the modalities of the Taliban’s participation in power and the type of future Afghan state. Its executive and administrative scope would be circumscribed, lessening the opportunities for the president to abuse or centralise power.”

(2) Ghani had issued a decree on 29 September 2014 pursuant article 50 of the constitution and in the light of the agreement between the two electoral teams about the structure of the National Unity Government approving the posts of chief executive with “duties of executive prime minister,” first and second deputy chief executive, and appointing Dr Abdullah Abdullah as the chief executive, Engineer Muhammad Khan as first deputy chief executive and Muhammad Mohaqeq as second deputy.

(3) In addition to Samar, the letter named the following women: 

  • Shafiqa Habibi, 
  • Mahbuba Seraj,
  • Roshan Tseran, the founder and executive director of Training Human Rights Association for Afghan Women (THRA)
  • Palwasha Hassan, a civil society activist and executive director of 
  • Suraya Sobhrang, former minister of public health and former ambassador to Geneva.
  • Shahgul Rezayi, an MP from Ghazni
  • Humaira Ayubi, a former MP from Farah
  • Salamat Azemi, the former minister of counter-narcotics
  • Roshan Mashal and
  • Najiba Ayubi

(4) On 2 April, Ghani officially introduced Muhammad Daud Sultanzoy as the Kabul mayor. First, Engineer Elham Omar Hotaki, the acting General Director of Office of Administrative Affairs, read the presidential order of Sultanzoy’s appointment as Kabul Mayor. Ahmad Zaki Sarfaraz, former Kabul mayor, then presented detailed information about the municipality’s performance, especially in planning and technical issues. Sultanzoy laid out his plan, which emphasised fighting corruption, reform and better service delivery to Kabul residents. Ghani said that the Kabul mayor is a member of the cabinet and hoped Sultanzoy would work under the supervision of Amrullah Saleh.

On the same day, Ghani also officially introduced Abdul Hadi Arghandiwal, the leader of Hezb-e Islami as the acting minister of finance. Arghandiwal said he would focus on the fight against corruption, reform, transparency, coordination and cooperation and private sector and attracting international aid. He would take the post after something of a political scandal in February when Ghani broke up the ministry and taking many of its powers to the Palace, a decision he had to reverse after international pressure (see this USIP report), plus news of Ghani’s revocation of his decree.

Ghani said that he wanted to introduce cabinet figures who have “popular roots, political weight, political commitment and management.” Arghandiwal replaced Humayun Qayumi, former acting minister of finance. On the same day, 2 April, Ghani also officially introduced Muhammad Shaker Kargar as his chief of staff to replace Dr Faizullah Kakar. Ghani said that one of the most essential duties and responsibilities of the chief of staff was to “build political consensus” and they “should rely on continued cooperation and consultations.”

(5) A former advisor to Abdullah, Najib Barwar, who resigned in protest to Abdullah backing down claimed in a Facebook post that Ahadi had refused to be sworn in as Abdullah’s chief executive on the day of his inauguration, on 9 March, and said “I do not stand this far.” He accused Ahadi of joining the team due to “political shenanigans, not a political cause.” 


Annex 1

AAN’s working translation of Abdullah’s proposal for a political agreement to end the ongoing political impasse. 

The text was published by Etilaat-e Roz in Dari and sources close to Abdullah confirmed to AAN that it was indeed his proposal.

Political agreement framework

In the name of God

Appreciating the continued efforts by national personalities and useful views from the international community about resolving the electoral crisis in the country; 

Emphasising that each of the sides – the Stability and Integration and State-Builder – has their own specific standpoint about the election result;

Realising that a continuation of this situation is not in the interests of the country or the people of Afghanistan and; to get out of the impasse and create a government based on political agreement, the following themes are presented as the framework for a reasonable political agreement

A) Supreme State Council (Shura-ye ‘Ali-ye Dawlat)

  • In order to build political consensus, a Supreme State Council comprising political leaders and national personalities shall be established
  • The Council shall advise the president and leadership of the government on major national issues, Afghanistan’s relations with the countries of the world, strengthening national unity and the realisation of social justice and the government’s structural reforms
  • Members of the State’s Leadership Council [ie the Supreme State Council] shall be given special government protocol and necessary security measures shall be provided to them

B) Executive prime ministership with a focus on peace (sadarat-e ejrayi ba mehwariyat-e solh)

1. Rasmiyat (Official basis) and establishment

  • The office of executive prime minister with a focus on peace shall be established based on the political agreement;
  • The office of executive prime minister with a focus on peace shall become official with the signature of leaders of the two sides.
  • This provision shall also apply to the running-mates of executive prime minister with a focus on peace
  • The office of executive prime minister with a focus on peace shall be based in the Sapedar Palace
  • Special representative of the leader of Stability and Integration shall be appointed as special representative of executive prime minister with pivot on peace

2. Authorities

The office of the executive prime minister with a focus on peace shall have the following authorities:

  • Leading all affairs related to the national peace process;
  • Leading meetings of Supreme Leadership Council and High Council for Reconciliation
  • Calling [meetings of] council of ministers on instances related to peace process;
  • Appointing all officials and related executive and administrative employees, including [those of] the State Ministry for Peace;
  • Building national, regional and international consensus on peace;
  • Attracting international aid for the better advancement of peace affairs;
  • Attracting international development aid for reconstruction of the country after the establishment of peace

3. Protocol 

  • The office of the executive prime minister with a focus on peace shall be the second highest-ranking position in terms of protocol, security and formalities in the country;
  • Running-mates of the executive prime minister with a focus on peace shall be on a par with the vice-presidents in terms of protocol, security and formalities
  • Special representative of the executive prime minister with a focus on peace shall be on par with the president’s special representative

4. Budget

  • The office of prime minister with pivot on peace shall have an independent budgetary unit.
  • The budget of the office of the executive prime minister with a focus on peace shall be financed by the government of Afghanistan
  • The executive prime minister may also receive a budget from international donor authorities
  • The executive prime minister with a focus on peace shall have full authority in budget expenditure

5. Structure 

The office of executive prime minister with pivot on peace shall have the following structure:

  • Supreme leadership council (comprising major political leaders and national personalities)
  • National Council for Reconciliation (comprising a number of members of the National Assembly, representatives of political parties and civil society)
  • State ministry for peace as a secretariat 
  • Team of negotiation with the Taleban
  • Other necessary structures

6. Establishment of Supreme Leadership Council [it seems the Supreme Leadership Council and Supreme State Council in the first section is the same or different]

  • The Supreme Leadership Council shall be established in consultation with other political parties, comprising political leaders and national personalities
  • Dr Abdullah Abdullah as the executive prime minister with a focus on peace, [and] as head of the Supreme Leadership Council, shall head the Supreme Leadership Council and lead all affairs related to peace
  • One of the vice-presidents representing the president shall be a member of the Supreme Leadership Council 

7. Authorities of Supreme Leadership Council

  • Supreme Leadership Council shall verify, approve and lead all content and executive affairs related to peace process
  • Decisions and approvals of the Supreme Leadership Council shall be made based on the majority votes of the council’s members
  • Decisions and approval of the Supreme Leadership Council shall be final and binding and to be implemented
  • The negotiation team shall serve under the direct guidance of the Supreme Leadership Council and report to the Supreme Leadership Council and the head of this council
  • Dr Abdullah as the head of Supreme Leadership Council, in consultation with political elders, civil society and speakers of the two houses of the National Assembly, shall establish the council for reconciliation [the purpose and mandate of this is not specified]
  • The president may call consultative meetings of the Supreme Leadership Council
  • If consultative meetings are called, the president and the executive prime minister with a focus on peace shall co-chair the meetings

C) Participation

1. Judiciary 

Members of the Supreme Court’s High Council shall be appointed, in consultation between the two sides, in accordance with legal provisions and observance of principle of balance.

2. Government

One: Central government agencies

  • Abdul Rashid Dostum, former vice-president, shall be appointed by the leader of Stability and Integration [Abdullah] as deputy to the commander in chief and promoted to rank of marshal through a presidential decree
  • 50 per cent of the ministers, heads of independent [bodies], deputy [ministers] and ambassadors, including security agencies and key civilian ministries, shall be appointed by the executive prime minister with pivot on peace
  • The attorney general and his/her deputies shall also be included into this 50 per cent equilibrium
  • Out of four key security officials (National Security Advisor, Ministers of Defence and Interior and General director of NDS), two shall be appointed by the executive prime minister with a focus on Peace
  • Vetting the merit and legal requirements of people introduced by the Stability and Integration to high-ranking government posts shall fall within the authority of the leader of the Stability and Integration
  • The replacement and dismissal of officials introduced by the executive prime minister with a focus on peace shall take place only with the agreement of the introducer
  • In the case of the dismissal or replacement of officials introduced by the executive prime minister with a focus on peace, their replacements shall also be introduced by him
  • A balance shall be observed in the composition of the National Security Council

Two: Local administrations

  • Provincial governors shall be appointed by whichever side received the most votes in that province, based on the percentage of votes
  • Conditions of introduction, dismissal and replacement of governors introduced by the executive prime minister with pivot on peace shall be subject to the conditions of introduction, dismissal and replacement of officials of central agencies which are described under the section on central agencies
  • Chiefs of police and heads of NDS in the provinces and senior commanders of the army shall be appointed in consultation between the two sides, observing ethnic balance

D) Fundamental reform

  • Provincial and district council elections shall be held as soon as possible in order to complete the membership of a Loya Jirga
  • Elections for mayors shall be held as soon as possible in order to implement legal provisions [unspecified] and improve city affairs
  • A commission to draft amendments to the constitution shall be appointed a maximum of one year after the agreement, in accordance with article 150 of the constitution, and its head shall be appointed by the executive prime minister with a focus on peace
  • A Loya Jirga [to approve] amendments to the constitution shall be held after the district council elections to change the political system
  • Electoral reform, including legal, technical and cadre reforms shall be undertaken within six months. Reforming and strengthening the use of the biometric system based on previous experiences shall be part of the reform
  • The electoral law shall be amended within three months of signing of this agreement in order to change the electoral system and implement MDR [multi-dimensional representation (AAN background here)]
  • Amendment to the political party law shall also be undertaken within this period
  • In order to create administrative facilities, per the people’s demand, new provinces, including in central areas, the north and other parts of the country where there is public demand and a pressing need shall be approved within three months
  • The ‘kankor’ quota [which shares out entry to state universities by province] shall be annulled

E) Oversight and implementation mechanism

  • In the agreement, a mediation delegation shall be authorised to prevent violations of the agreement
  • UN representatives and other international authorities shall also be requested to oversee the proper implementation of the political agreement in cooperation with the mediation delegation
  • One joint technical team shall be established by the two teams to identify instances of violation of the agreement
  • The technical team shall try to prevent the violation of the agreement through understanding; if the effort of the joint technical team does not produce any result, the representative of the side affected by the [reported] violation of the agreement shall officially refer the issue to the mediation delegation 

F) Validity period

The political agreement shall be valid till the end of the government’s term.


Tags:

the Executive Prime Minister with a Focus on Peace Supreme State Council power-sharing peace process Dr Abdullah Ashraf Ghani national unity government

Authors:

Ali Yawar Adili

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