Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Political Landscape

Handing Over Alive: Whither Afghanistan’s political transition?

Thomas Ruttig 10 min

When President Hamed Karzai left office after the completion of his two constitutional terms and handed over to President Muhammad Ashraf Ghani, as he now officially prefers to be called, this was widely called the ‘first peaceful political transition’ – read: without violence or the head of state being immediately killed – in a very long time. While the handover was, in itself, an important symbol of a completed political transition, the messy way the succession had been decided has implications for how the new administration can govern. AAN senior analyst Thomas Ruttig, as a follow-up to an earlier dispatch, has been assessing how the new government will perform in three crucial fields: the economy, war and peace and the creation of an effective administration. He also looks at how a real transition to a more effective and inclusive form of governance can be made.

A short look back

Many in the media pointed to the year 1901 when Amir Abdul Rahman died peacefully and his son, Habibullah, ascended the throne in Kabul, as the only time that power had previously been transferred peacefully in Afghanistan. This was not fully accurate, however, and ignores earlier examples.

The first mujahedin interim president to take power after the end of the Soviet occupation and the collapse of the Najibullah government in April 1992, Hazrat Sebghatullah Mojaddedi, also handed over to his successor, after completing his three months’ period in office. Such a rotation had been agreed between the victorious but invariably disunited mujahedin leaders who had failed to chose an overall leader for the country. Mojaddedi’s successor, the late Ustad Borhanuddin Rabbani, slain by a suicide bomber in 2011, clung on to the position for far longer; while civil war engulfed Kabul, a shura convened to extend his rule in December 1992 was boycotted and its outcome disputed by some of the other warring leaders. Rabbani was then in power until the Taleban took over Kabul in 1996 and remained the country’s official head of state until the Taleban regime collapsed under the military power of the US-led coalition and allied mujahedin fighters in 2001. He was back in the presidential palace within days of the Taleban’s ousting, but then powerful younger leaders in his own organisation – the current quasi-prime minister, Dr Abdullah, Yunos Qanuni, and the late Marshal Qassim Fahim – persuaded him to hand over to Karzai when he was chosen to lead Afghanistan at the Bonn conference.

Some may point out that Babrak Karmal also left office alive and peacefully in 1986, although he was forced to step aside in favour of Najibullah by the Soviet leadership under Mikhail Gorbachev. Peacefully does not always mean voluntarily.

Votes and deals

Although there may be earlier examples of ‘peaceful’ transitions to cite, this does not belittle this year’s handover from Karzai to Ghani, especially given that many had doubted over the previous years that the former would ever leave office voluntarily and were sure he would find a way to stay longer. However, the handover is only the very first step on a long way to prove that Afghanistan has reached some sort of political stability where it is not assassinations or military coups, or even civil war, which determines who succeeds whom and when at the top of the Afghan state, but rather elections.

And that is exactly were the problems are already starting. As many commentators, Afghan and non-Afghan, and some voters the author has met during his first days back in Kabul, have pointed out, the outcome of the election – ie which of the two final contenders became president and which not – was only partly decided by votes cast on 5 April and 14 June (because the figures remain contested until today). It was finally the not too transparent political deal that led to the government of national unity. Therefore, the way the Karzai-Ghani handover happened epitomises the fact that the fragmented and still competing Afghan political elites were able only to avoid the worst-case scenario: the descent into the chaos of a violent struggle for power, to paraphrase Ahmed Rashid’s book title. They were unable to produce a process that would end in a clear result accepted by both winner and loser and nor did the institutions exist that would be independent and clean enough to make this happen technically. Indeed, the circumstances under which the handover took place symbolise the continuing weakness of Afghanistan’s political institutions.

Still, out of that worse-than-hoped for election outcome something positive might arise. A first good sign is that both sides have agreed that both electoral commissions need to be urgently reformed. There is resistance from them already, of course, but at the same time the two leaders have support for that from many in parliament. But this would also just be a first step to real electoral reform. To give only one example for other election-related problems: Afghanistan’s electoral calendar is full for the coming two years, with parliamentary and possible district council (and mayor?) elections due next year and a constitutional loya jirga due, at the latest, in 2016. (For the latter, a large number of members also need to be (s)elected.) This timetable creates the danger that those in the executive and the legislative might get distracted, particularly as the need to build electoral coalitions could undercut the inclination to implement at least parts of the reform agenda.

Waiting for the cabinet

The next key measurement, particularly in the early days, of the new government, will be appointments. While sticking to their agreement, the president and his Chief Executive Officer (CEO) need to find criteria to make sure the new cabinet ministers (but also key advisors – even if not covered by the Ghani-Abdullah agreement) are capable. This will be difficult as both leaders’ entourages seem to focus so much on positions at the cabinet table that the formation of this part of the new government has already slowed down. Unless this hurdle is overcome, the government of national unity will be nothing more than a realignment of the same elites who were already influential under Karzai (even if there will, unavoidably, be some victims of job rotation).

Here, also, some positive signs have appeared: the government spokesman recently repeated that there will be only new faces in the new cabinet, and that the president will stick to his own deadline to have a cabinet within 45 days after his inauguration. (On 8 November, Ghani told visiting ulema the cabinet should not be formed hastily and deputy CEO Muhammad Khan added the “framework” of the government will be finished  this week which seems to indicate that the cabinet formation will take longer, read here). The president has also said he was pondering whether to appoint the first ever woman to the supreme court. There are some new, reform-minded faces among the first appointments – but also some of the ‘old faces’ were re-appointed.

Three main yardsticks: governance…

In the long term, the new government and its success will be measured mainly along three criteria – both at home and abroad: first, whether it is able to create a distinctly more effective working administration, including at least at the provincial, if not the district, level; secondly, whether it is able to make tangible moves towards ending the war, bearing in mind that this will necessitate an inclusive political solution (not just including the Taleban); and thirdly, whether it is able to find ways to increase domestic revenues, not only to pay for the large security forces – as demanded by donors and by the very fact of the insurgency – but also for the still patchy (see for example here) social services sectors, especially education and health.

There are formidable hurdles that stand in the way of the new government’s success on all three points. While the willingness to implement governance reforms has clearly become visible in how the president acted immediately after his inauguration, with his CEO struggling to keep up with him, there are doubts about their camp followers. The desire for merit-based appointments only and wider reform cannot be assumed by those on both sides who are deeply rooted in the patronage system re-established under Karzai and who have profited massively from it. They deem it natural for them to be ‘remunerated’ for their political clout, including their role in voter or votes mobilisation.

… war and peace and …

On the issue of war and peace, particularly when it comes to ‘talking to the Taleban’, there is still no clearly visible strategy from Ghani and Abdullah. They come from different traditions. For Ghani, as a Pashtun, it might be easier to relate at least to those in the Taleban movement who might still be inclined to negotiations. As Barnett Rubin recently pointed out in an article, Ghani might perhaps ask for some good offices from the UN, “lifting Karzai’s ban on track-two meetings between Taliban representatives and unofficial groups of Afghans”. This could be part of what Ghani has called the “intra-Afghan dialogue” he says he is interested in, which would include both major insurgent groups, the Taleban and Hezb-e Islami’s armed wing. The Taleban’s Qatar office also continues to exist as a possible channel.

Many people in the Abdullah camp (but also in Ghani’s, including his vice president, Abdul Rashid Dostum) were key figures in the former anti-Taleban ‘Northern Alliance’ and are perhaps not natural supporters of the idea of a political solution to the insurgency. However, Abdullah, at least, has spoken about the need for more than a military solution, including the need to strengthen the state and its legitimacy in order to marginalise the insurgents (1) and representatives of this ‘camp’ participated in earlier track II initiatives in France and Japan. Advisors of Dostum have also stated that it will be easier for them to talk to the Taleban than it was for Karzai, as for them it is clear who is foe and who is friend.

There does seem to be a growing public anti-Taleban and pro-ANSF mood, at least among those with access to the media, including in sectors of civil society. Opinions raised there sometimes sound as if they are based on the belief that the ‘insurgency question’ can and should be resolved militarily. (This still might be different in areas that are regularly affected by fighting.) Negative reactions immediately came up in the social and conventional media, however, after Ghani called the insurgents the “political opposition.” This term may indeed be inaccurate, but it was also a sign of his search for a new language. On the one hand, local initiatives to find a way towards peace seem to have picked up hope.

The resistance against a political solution that includes the Taleban also stands in the way of the acknowledgement that there is more to the Taleban than their terrorist attacks and the – undoubtedly vital – support from Pakistan and the Gulf, namely to admit that internal factors like corruption, the predatory behaviour of government officials particularly in the provinces and the atrocities of militias, both government-controlled and not, continue, in part, to drive the insurgency, or at least some sympathy for it.

Last but not least, the Taleban themselves are not in a reconciliatory mood, if their public statements are anything to go by (quoted here). After the signing of the BSA, they attacked Ghani verbally, saying that “Karzai was appointed by the Americans and imposed on Afghanistan. But Ashraf Ghani has taken it one step further. His actions are even more shameful than Karzai’s.” They underlined their hostile rhetoric by launching a series of attacks in Kabul. In the eyes of the insurgents, the bilateral security agreement (BSA) with the United States, that paved the way for the continued, although much diminished presence of foreign soldiers, stands in the way of a peaceful solution with the government in Kabul.

All these factors make it difficult for Ghani and Abdullah to come up with a joint approach that is realistic, ‘sellable’ to both sides’ supporters and has a chance of succeeding at the same time. This is likely to be the reason why Ghani has not spelled out too concretely so far how his ‘inter-Afghan dialogue’ will proceed. A consensual approach is indispensible on this sensitive issue.

… the economy

On the third point, the economy, Afghanistan might still be decades away even from a situation where growing internal revenues start crowding out the need for external resources. Over almost two centuries – first, as a buffer state between the Russian and British empires, and later as bastions in the Cold and then the ‘War on Terror’ –, Afghans have become accustomed to living in a rentier state, reliant on external subsidies and which the people do not pay for, for example in the form of taxes. (This also has political implications, of course – how to establish a working democracy where people can hold the government to account if they do not pay for it.) In this context, the BSA – given that it also secured continued western financial aid – is, in effect, a continuing of the rentier tradition. Moreover, Afghanistan’s continued role as a US ally in the fight against ‘terrorism’ may well be an advantage for mobilising external resources even if reforms should stall.

When it comes to getting Afghanistan’s economy going, ‘silver bullet approaches’ – from relying on mineral resources to the ‘Heart of Asia’ project – have been tried too often. Such one-dimensional and technocratic initiatives sound like 1970s’ industrialisation dreams. Afghanistan needs a multidimensional strategy that develops all current major earners – agriculture, remittances, trade, taxing real estate (even bearing in mind that it has often been acquired by illegal means during different periods of the factional wars’ lawlessness) – with export-oriented sectors that start working in the longer run. Such development will need the strengthening of the rule of law so that revenues are not syphoned away by strongmen or a corrupt bureaucracy – and that brings us back to elections.

Re-creating hope and trust

All in all, the new government’s success will not be measured in the complete fulfilment of these tasks, as the mountains to be moved for this to happen are simply too large, but whether it starts moving clearly in the right direction, and not only in words, but in deeds.

Afghanistan’s leaders really need to decide whether they want their country to be a democracy more than just on paper. But even then, making sure future elections end with a transparent and largely undisputed outcome would be just the minimum, as elections are only one part of democratic statehood. President Ghani has already said that he wants to enhance the role of political parties who themselves will need to show that they function democratically within their own organisations, too, and that their leaderships are accountable to their memberships. Other proof for a new, reformist mind-set on the government’s part would be the recognition of the independence of civil society, in contract to the previous government’s attempts to co-opt parts of it, and if sub-national legislative bodies (like the provincial councils) would be strengthened as checks and balances for the national reform agenda on their levels.

Afghan voters have shown that they will come out en masse and vote and, particularly during the first round of voting, that they are up for a more open political system and to transcending ‘traditional’ ethnic and political allegiances. It is even possible that institutionalising better political participation might restore some of the optimism and trust in democratic mechanisms lost during the protracted post-election process.

(1) See for example in his pre-election interview with AAN:

I don’t think there is a prescription, you put it there for a quick fix and things change over night. The point is that everything we are struggling for – legitimacy of the state institutions, justice and delivery of services, fighting against corruption – will create circumstances that would isolate those who would like to continue fighting the war. Apart from efforts in the regional context that one has to do, apart from the efforts of reconciliation that one has to carry out, this broader picture is important.


democracy Economy Elections Ghani Governance Political Parties provincial councils Taleban War