Once the first Afghan Parliament was inaugurated in November 2005, the UN role in sharing administrative duties ended and the Afghan government became officially fully sovereign. Since then, the international community and the Afghan government have had a complex relationship whereby international donors provide essential assistance and policy advice to pursue their own interests while also trying to respect Afghan sovereignty and allow for Afghans, who know their country best, to develop effective solutions to security, political, and development problems. The challenges of this convoluted relationship have led to the mantra that Afghan elections and the peace process must be ‘Afghan-owned and Afghan-led’.
This ambition holds true from a moral and a legal perspective. But the frequent use of the phrase masks the fact that the international community, including neighbours outside the Western donor community, has enormous influence over political arrangements in Afghanistan. International assistance is vital to funding and maintaining the state. And, tellingly, at times of deep political or security crisis, the international community, led by the US, NATO and the UN, has intervened to mediate a solution to a crisis. The forming of the NUG in the wake of the controversial 2014 elections is just the latest example.
The international community is therefore both a safety net to avoid political and security disasters, but also bears some responsibility for tipping the scales in one direction or another to resolve crises in ways that serve Western security interests but may destabilise Afghan politics. At the same time, the international community’s ability to use its leverage is constrained by the fact that if substantial international assistance is withdrawn from Afghanistan, the state is likely to collapse and the core goal of the international community to prevent safe havens for transnational terrorists will not be met. Afghan political leaders, and the Taliban, know this and a fragile balance of power is somewhat maintained but with a steep cost in violence and instability. Afghanistan’s neighbours are also wary of the chaos that could escape Afghanistan’s borders in the event of state collapse, and Pakistan in particular fears having a government in Kabul that would act too favourably toward India. Therefore, countries in the region have also intervened significantly in Afghanistan’s internal politics by supporting proxies that serve foreign interests but keep the situation unstable.
Amid this complex dynamic, international leadership can help navigate a way out of the current stalemated political dynamic if it is applied in a coordinated and strategic way. If recent history is a guide, it will otherwise take a destabilising crisis for the international community to act. International actors should first acknowledge that there are flaws in the current political architecture and give cautious support to political reform processes conducted according to shared principles that Afghan actors agree upon – including ideally the Taliban. Such principles might include: the status quo is divisive and destabilising; meaningful inclusion of all non-violent political and ethnic factions is essential; and changes to the current system must be consensual and in accordance with the law. Then international actors could play a mediating role to facilitate a consensus view on the process by which political reform could be achieved.
In many ways, the NUG Agreement provides an initial blueprint for political reform negotiations – notwithstanding the severe challenges this power- sharing arrangement has experienced in practice. Finding a way to diversify the powers of the presidency among different groups is a key demand. Devolving some power to the provinces will reduce central government control but may buy political stability. The fact that negotiations over the removal of Governor Atta centred around the core demands of Chief Executive Officer Abdullah in the NUG Agreement discussions, including a shift toward a parliamentary system of government, indicate the former Northern Alliance’s underlying demand for more effective power-sharing among regional and ethnic groups is not going away. Although in the end the crisis was resolved by negotiating a few presidentially appointed positions, the fundamental instability of the system remains unchanged: without addressing the system anyone with power can stall political progress for months to get patronage concessions.
Some important changes can be taken by executive action – although those are most susceptible to change and trust levels in the durability of executive action are low. One opportunity would be to support the formation of a commission to formulate amendments to the constitution that was called for in the NUG Agreement. This need not lead to a Loya Jirga right away but could help to define the terms of more inclusive power-sharing arrangements.
To achieve more lasting change there would need to be fundamental revisions of the law and the constitution. However, these are nearly impossible for the Afghan political actors to achieve in the current heightened state of tension.
The first and greatest opportunity is to facilitate political accommodation is around the 2019 presidential elections. The international community has been very wary of intervening directly in the electoral reform debate because of the sensitivities around international interventions to resolve crises after both the 2009 and the 2014 presidential elections. The Afghan government has made it clear that electoral reform is solely a national issue. On the other hand, from an international perspective the failure of electoral reform has led to political gridlock that affects international security interests. While different factions within the Afghan government have argued over their roles in decision-making, the Taliban have gained territory and an increasing number of international terrorist groups have found a foothold in Afghanistan. More active international mediation of the political differences that have blocked progress on electoral reform could help to break an important logjam and enable a more credible election process in 2019.
Another – likely later – opportunity to advance reforms that would bring about more inclusive governance lies in the conduct of a peace process with the Taliban. No one has wanted to re-do the Bonn process or open the constitution to major reforms because of fear that human rights, women’s rights and democratic principles might be set back. But after a decade of deteriorating status quo, one wonders when the slow, steady decline of stability will slip below the worst-case scenario outcome of major reforms and it will seem like the risk is worth taking. Apart from the presence of international forces on Afghan soil, the Taliban’s biggest grievance appears to be their exclusion from the Bonn Agreement and the 2004 Constitutional Loya Jirga. It is likely that a peace process would force a re-examination of the fundamental structures of government and create space for new deals to emerge.
Any significant change to the political system or the constitution must take the negative lessons of political exclusion into account. The more major the reform, the more important it is to attempt to include Taliban representatives – as well as the major non-Taliban ethnic and political factions – in the process. Given the instability of the status quo, there is a need to make progress on reforms without waiting for an uncertain peace process. But even without Taliban participation, reforms should aim to create more space at local level for the Taliban and non-violent opposition groups to have a greater and safer space in the Afghan political process. The 2019 presidential elections, preceded by President Ghani’s peace offer to the Taliban extended during the March 2018 Kabul Conference, creates a fluid situation that can be unstable, but also an opportunity to make progress on greater political inclusion.