What’s the Plan? The Afghan Government


Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of posts based on insights gleaned from Jason Campbell’s recent NATO-sponsored trip to Afghanistan that featured meetings with senior NATO and Afghan officials, members of Parliament, representatives from a number of international organizations, and prominent members of Afghan civil society.


Following an election dispute that took up the bulk of 2014, the newly inaugurated Afghan unity government led by President Ashraf Ghani and CEO Abdullah Abdullah now must engage in the process of building a government. The degree to which the two camps can avoid infighting and settle on appointments will determine Afghanistan’s prospects for near- and medium-term stability. Meanwhile, a longed for but tricky reform agenda is beginning to take shape. But will it over promise and under deliver?

Still some squabbling, but working toward a greater good. The consensus from the meetings is that both Ghani and Abdullah “get it”: the unity government must work. There is some doubt, however, on the degree to which their respective camps comprehend the gravity of the situation. Thus, Afghan civil society members we met with welcomed reports that Ghani and Abdullah have agreed to meet one-on-one, three times per week. One NGO director said, “The more they talk directly, the better. It leaves less chance for political spoilers.” This may indeed be productive in reaching agreements on overarching issues or procedural matters. Yet the fact remains that each candidate relied on an eclectic mix of political players to reach this point and there will be many voices competing for a say in government formation.

Mechanism in place for government formation. Five senior members from each camp will form a council to recommend and vet potential government appointees. There did not appear, however, to be further details as to what the specific rules of engagement will be or who will decide in the event of a stalemate. Ministries, provincial governorships, and ambassadorships were listed as the order of priority. According to one parliamentarian, there are roughly 230 appointments in all, of which 65 of the most essential are now being deliberated.

As for ministerial appointees, no specific names have been confirmed, although the rough contours of some of the more prominent ministries seem to be taking shape. Abdullah will reportedly appoint the minister of foreign affairs and the minister of defense, while Ghani’s side will name the minister of interior and has already appointed the National Security Adviser Hanif Atmar. One potential point of contention will be the nomination of the director for the National Directorate for Security, Afghanistan’s intelligence agency.

Very ambitious…but strategic? Since being inaugurated, President Ghani has announced a wide-ranging and ambitious agenda. He has called for a reassessment of all senior leadership within the Afghan National Security Forces (to be covered in greater detail in an upcoming post), voiced his desire to institute minimum requirements for those who serve in government, and opened a new case against some of those involved in the Kabul Bank scandal. This despite a lame duck Cabinet, as all senior government appointees have been placed on a 90-day interim basis pending the formation of a new government. Needless to say, there is concern that Ghani is pushing for too much too soon and runs the risk of outpacing Afghanistan’s institutions. While no one we met with took issue with any specific initiative, most questioned the timing of his proposed reforms.

A NATO official sensed that the impending NATO Conference in London in early December is a motivating factor. Afghan officials are eager to show the international community that progress is being made and the official said it would be interesting to see how hard Ghani pushes to build donor confidence ahead of it.

(Next) reinvigorated push for reconciliation. Afghan officials appear eager to put in place a framework for new peace talks. Afghan officials repeatedly mentioned that the Taliban leadership has not yet refused to engage with the new government, as it did repeatedly during President Karzai’s tenure. Some among the Afghan leadership may also be less opposed to peace talks than previously thought. According to one NATO official, prominent former Northern Alliance members such as Abdullah and Mohamed Mohaqiq are much warmer to the prospect of engaging in peace talks than they were two years ago.

At a meeting at the Presidential Palace in Kabul, a senior Afghan official emphasized the need to involve “outside partners” in the peace process. In addition to NATO officials, the government had already spoken with officials from Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the UAE, Qatar, and China. The principal message delivered was, “We have a common interest, but not a common strategy.” With regard to direct talks with the Taliban, the official distinguished between “local” and “macro” level interactions with the insurgents. Concerning the former, it was suggested that such outreach was a factor in the relative calm experienced on Election Day in the eastern, southeastern, and southern parts of the country. As for the latter, the primary focus of the Afghan government will be on the Quetta Shura led by Mullah Omar, which counts the Haqqani Network among its adherents and maintains a presence in Qatar.

Cracks in the foundation. Despite a general feeling of optimism among both the Ghani and Abdullah camps that the government will be formed without significant problems, a couple of recurring themes from the meetings left me with some reservations. First, there appear to be incongruent expectations. In every interaction with a member of the Abdullah camp, it was noted that the appointment process would be “50/50” across the board. Ghani supporters, on the other hand, adopted non-committal language when discussing numbers, referring instead to the need for “parity” and “accountability” in the process. One Ghani supporter even said that a 50/50 approach would harken back to the Karzai days of backdoor dealing and would alienate other important constituencies who should have a say in the process.

Second, on a broader level, the months-long election dispute revealed some ethnic-based tension that periodically veered into hostility, particularly over social media. While some international officials voiced concern that this could be indicative of deeper societal fissures, the Afghans we met with tended to be quicker to write it off to frustration fostered by the drawn out process.

Final analysis. With the election dispute having reached a settlement, one can sense a feeling of hope and opportunity among the Afghan political spectrum. Members of each camp are voicing optimism and saying the right things, but it is important to bear in mind that there have not yet been any “losers” in the process. Before the unity government can address the litany of issues facing the country, it must first successfully clear the hurdle of appointing new leadership without succumbing to the aforementioned “political spoilers” within the two camps, external pressures, or an increasingly active insurgency.

At dinner one night, a prominent Afghan journalist stated that last April’s poll was Afghanistan’s first real election. “I voted for the first time in 13 years and there were many like me. If the unity government doesn’t work it could be the end of democracy here.” Such a statement is particularly powerful considering that, even if the government formation process goes smoothly, Afghanistan still faces many daunting tasks and an uncertain future.

Up Next: The NATO ISAF Coalition


Jason H. Campbell (@JasonHCampbell) is an associate policy analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation in Washington, D.C. His opinions are his own and do not represent those of the RAND Corporation.