The Taliban Are Ready to Exploit America’s Exit
What a U.S. Withdrawal Means for Afghanistan
On Sunday, Ashraf Ghani was declared the victor in a contest to determine Afghanistan’s next president. The process has been infuriating: eight months of official campaigning, several dozen candidates winnowed down to a final pair of contenders for a June runoff, and then three more months of bickering over which camp’s electoral fraud had been more massive. But the end product of this mess was the best possible outcome: best for Afghanistan, best for the region, and best for the United States. Here’s why.
For starters (and in Afghanistan, this is only a starting point), Ghani almost certainly won the most votes. His precise margin of victory, however, remains unclear. The initial tally of the runoff put him over a million votes ahead of his rival, Abdullah Abdullah. After a United Nations–supervised audit of all ballots, the Afghan election commission declared Ghani victorious -- but, in deference to Abdullah’s protests that the vote was flawed, the final numbers were not publicly revealed. Ghani’s camp says that the UN process threw out 850,000 ballots and left Ghani with 55 percent of those remaining; the respected independent Afghan monitoring expert Nader Nadery came up with nearly the same estimation.
Unlike many of the candidates who started the race, Ghani is a technocrat, rather than a warlord. (Of the nine contenders who survived disqualification by the electoral commission besides Ghani and Abdullah, at least five were deeply implicated in institutional corruption, the running of private militias, or both.) After a long career at the World Bank, Ghani returned to Afghanistan to serve as adviser and subsequently finance minister to the nation’s first post-Taliban president, Hamid Karzai. In this capacity, Ghani was instrumental in establishing several of the least dysfunctional sectors of the Afghan government and economy: its currency, its cell-phone system, and its widely admired National Solidarity Program for development.
Just as Afghanistan has been lucky in its choice of president, it has been fortunate in its choice of opposition leader. Abdullah is a veteran of the bloody conflicts of the 1990s. But, unlike many of his comrades and adversaries from that period, he is sober-minded, responsible, and moderate. The past few months have sown some ill will between him and Ghani, but he has shown himself able to rise above personal politics before: he did so when he joined Karzai’s first administration as foreign minister, he did so when he reined in potentially violent supporters after losing a fraud-ridden presidential contest to Karzai in 2009, and he did so when he resisted the threats of present-day backers (such as Atta Muhammad, the governor of Balkh) to launch a civil war in support of his most recent campaign. Abdullah saw Kabul’s future as a bomb-strewn rubble field and had no desire to be president of it.
Reasons for guarded optimism, however, go much deeper. Perhaps even more important than the election result itself is the power-sharing agreement that Ghani and Abdullah (aided by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry) finalized over the weekend. Under this arrangement, Abdullah or his proxy will serve as the government’s chief executive, a newly created post that is expected to evolve into a prime ministership. Why is a rejiggering of the Afghan government so important? Because many of Afghanistan’s failures over the past dozen years have resulted from a mismatch between the structure of Afghanistan’s post-Taliban government and the realities on the ground.
Traditionally, power in Afghanistan has been highly decentralized, with a wide array of tribal and clan leaders wielding enormous control over their respective communities. They still do, and any correlation between this unofficial power and the legal authority of the state is generally the result of a corrupt backroom deal. Under Afghanistan’s 2004 constitution, all provincial and local governors, police chiefs, and other agents of government serve at the pleasure of the president. The problems this has created are not particularly surprising. Sometimes officials are selected on the basis of tribal or clan affiliations, with competent technocrats (rare birds to begin with) losing out to candidates who are incompetent, venal, or nepotistic. Other times, potentially lucrative offices are sold to the highest bidder. The price to be chief of police in a province with an international border -- that is, a posting that comes with particularly good opportunities to extract bribes of one’s own -- is reportedly $100,000.
This two-tiered system of power -- highly centralized legal authority, highly localized actual authority -- has proved toxic. Rampant corruption is only the most noticeable symptom. Equally dangerous is the creation of a winner-takes-all system of spoils: when all paths for political or economic advancement go through the presidential palace, every election becomes a battle to the death. With good reason, then, ever since the 2009 election, Abdullah has advocated devolution of political power to the provincial and local levels, with governors chosen by election rather than appointed by the president. The current arrangement doesn’t go this far (and devolution might add a new set of opportunities for corruption and warlordism), but it is a step in the right direction. More immediately important, it keeps the roughly half of the Afghan electorate that voted against Ghani within the system rather than against it.
None of this is to suggest that Afghanistan’s future will be easy. Far from it. The bitterness that wracked the country for the past three months won’t soon go away because it stems from much deeper ethnic and regional tensions. Ghani’s base is predominantly southern and Pashtun, while Abdullah’s base is predominantly northern and Tajik. Both camps have plenty of partisans who will never be content with half a loaf. Afghanistan has not seen a day of true peace since the Soviet invasion of 1979, and in the past six months the Taliban has killed more soldiers and police (over 2,000) than in any other similar period since 2001. The Afghan government is deeply reliant on the international community not only for its security but also merely to pay its operating expenses: foreign assistance accounts for two-thirds of this year’s $7.6 billion budget.
But that very reliance, paradoxically, may help bolster the shaky bargain on which the country’s future rests. Both Ghani and Abdullah recognize that their government can’t easily survive without international support, in the financial and security arenas alike. Although outgoing president Karzai refused to sign a deal to keep U.S. and other troops on the ground after this year, Ghani and Abdullah have both promised to do so immediately upon taking office. It may well have been Kerry’s diplomacy, including a facts-of-life audio conference with key Abdullah backers last week, that sealed the deal. There’s plenty of bad blood between the new president and his putative prime minister -- but bad blood is better than spilled blood. And, in Afghanistan as elsewhere, the best outcome that is possible is, in fact, the best possible outcome.