September 30, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: Afghanistan’s New Leaders Take Over

• The inauguration on Monday of Ashraf Ghani as Afghanistan’s new president and appointment of Abdullah Abdullah as “Chief Executive Officer” of the government concludes a five month power-struggle that paralyzed the Afghan economy and worsened the security situation

• The installation of the new leadership team ends the Karzai era and paves the way for Afghanistan to sign Bilateral Security Agreements with both the United States and NATO

• About 14,000 US and NATO trainers and about 2,000 US Special Operations Forces will remain in Afghanistan after the end of this year

• There is widespread skepticism within Afghanistan and among international experts about the durability of the power-sharing agreement between Ghani and Abdullah, and even seemingly minor disputes could cause the arrangement to collapse

• The political dispute has benefitted the Taliban insurgency, which increased its activity during the political stalemate in Kabul and might be trying to use some of the brutal tactics that the so-called Islamic State has used in Iraq and Syria. 

Afghanistan has faced substantial uncertainty since the June 14, 2014 runoff election between former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani and former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah. The runoff represented intense competition between the dominant Pashtun community, of which Ghani is a member, and the next most numerous community, the Tajiks, with which Abdullah is identified. With Abdullah citing systematic fraud but Ghani claiming Pashtun solidarity, the runoff results reversed those of the first round, with Ghani winning by 55% to Abdullah’s 45%. Despite having recounted all votes before announcing Ghani the winner on September 21, Afghan election authorities said they still could not definitively disprove Abdullah’s allegations of widespread fraud.

The dispute was resolved via the September 21 signature of Ghani and Abdullah of a US-brokered power-sharing arrangement. Under that agreement, Ghani became president yesterday and immediately delegated some of his powers to Abdullah as “Chief Executive Officer.” Under the power-sharing agreement, the CEO has powers equivalent to that of a prime minister. The CEO will hold weekly ministerial meetings to implement governmental strategy determined by the president, and will jointly with the president make cabinet and other senior appointments. Within two years, there is to be a loya jirga (traditional Afghan assembly of about 2,000 notables), which will consider amending the constitution to formally create a post of prime minister.

Upon Ghani’s inauguration, Hamid Karzai, president since the 2001 overthrow of the Taliban, became the first Afghan leader to peacefully transfer power to a successor. The last years of his term were marked by acrimony with his international benefactors, including his refusal to sign “Bilateral Security Agreements” (BSAs) with both the United States and NATO to enable troops to remain beyond 2014. Those BSAs are to be signed by Ghani and Abdullah today. At the same time, some praise Karzai for including all ethnicities and factions in his government and avoiding the disaster engendered by the sectarian rule of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in Iraq.

Ghani’s inauguration and Abdullah’s appointment as CEO ease the substantial political uncertainty that has plagued Afghanistan since the spring. On several occasions, supporters of Abdullah, such as Balkh Province governor Atta Mohammad Noor (a Tajik), had threatened to help Abdullah take power by force. The threat of political breakdown necessitated two emergency visits to Kabul by Secretary of State John Kerry, and numerous phone calls by President Obama to the two candidates and to Karzai, who helped broker the dispute resolution. Despite a late-night dispute over the size of Abdullah’s CEO office that nearly collapsed their agreement, Ghani and Abdullah joined in a show of unity at the Monday inauguration. Still, a wide range of observers predict that the Ghani-Abdullah relationship will break down, perhaps irreparably, and perhaps as early as the coming month, as both leaders try to agree on cabinet selections.

The election dispute paralyzed Afghanistan’s economy as investors hesitated to enter the market and as Afghan businessmen moved assets out of the country. As a result, Afghanistan has asked international donors for over $550 million in extra funds to cover a severe budget shortfall caused by the economic paralysis. The accession of the new leaders could encourage donors to cover the deficit and would likely to revive the Afghan economy, at least in the short term.

The US and its allies in NATO are expressing relief at the resolution of the election dispute because the signing of the BSAs on Tuesday will enable them to move forward in earnest in planning for the post-2014 security mission in Afghanistan. NATO was unable to announce specific force contributions at the September 4-5 NATO meeting in Wales because neither Ghani nor Abdullah attended and the BSAs were left unsigned. The post-2014 mission will consist of about 14,000 US and NATO trainers for the Afghanistan National Security Forces (ANSF), of which about 8,000 will be from the US. An additional 2,000 US Special Operations Forces will continue counter-terrorism missions against al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups in Afghanistan such as the Haqqani Network and Lashkar-e-Taiba.

US and Afghan leaders also expect that a calmer political climate and the signing of the BSAs will help blunt recent Taliban battlefield momentum. At his inauguration, Ghani called on the Taliban to negotiate a settlement to the conflict, but successful negotiations likely depend on first setting back the insurgency militarily. Always active during the summer months, the Taliban was particularly successful this summer because of the political rifts and the thinning out of international troops. The insurgency was able to briefly capture some district centers in Helmand and Qandahar provinces, and it made gains in September in the central province of Ghazni. There, the Taliban mimicked tactics used by the so-called Islamic State (IS) by beheading at least twelve ANSF relatives and by setting fire to 60 houses, though there are no evident connections between the Taliban and the IS organization.


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