Afghans defied threats of violence and all odds to cast their ballots for president in April. Though initially, results favored candidate Abdullah Abdullah, a former Foreign Minister, it was not enough to avoid a runoff. The runoff began in June with early reports favoring candidate Ashraf Ghani, the former Finance Minister. That was when it all fell apart. Both camps began to accuse one another of fraud and there were demands for a recount and even the threat of forming separate governments. The situation has been in deadlock until this past week.
In a surprised visit, John Kerry arrived in Afghanistan and finally brokered a deal that both candidate agreed on. The deal ensures the continuation of a supervised recount with both parties agreeing to accept the results. Part of the agreement includes the creation of a new political office, the chief executive, who would be appointed by the losing candidate. It also calls for the creation of a prime minister position to be created within two years of whichever candidate taking office. It is unclear what the new positions will entail, the level of power they will yield, or their role in the functional government, but the spirit of the agreement is the formation of a coalition.
It is certainly admirable that both men are finally willing to work together. Their sudden urgency is also understandable given the September meeting of NATO where the elected Afghan President will need to present his government in order to avoid a disruption of economic aid. Yet, the complications and tensions that this first democratic election has been fraught with are part of a larger systemic problem in Afghan politics. Earlier in the election, I wrote a piece published by the History News Network that highlighted some of the problems that the new president will face. Those problems are being faced by the candidates before either of them have even become president.
Afghanistan remains a political challenge and while a coalition government gives cause to be optimistic, there are real problems that need immediate attention. Decades of war, suppression, and impoverishment have decimated Afghanistan’s intelligentsia whose moderate and liberal voices are necessary reconciling forces. Instead, Afghanistan is fraught with competing power struggles that the political system fails to deal with. There are semi-autonomous ethnic groups for whom the government in Kabul is a distant and abstract idea rather than immediate force. You have harshly competing political interests with parties whose partisan politics is disruptive at best. You have an under-educated and underemployed populace who feel alienated by their government and growing increasingly frustrated over their circumstances. You have a barely surviving infrastructure with a weak economy and a weak political system. Add to this mix the volatile formula of ongoing insurgency who far from being routed are gaining ground and what you have is a teetering Afghanistan.
I have a great deal of hope for Afghanistan, but my optimism is shaken when I remember that Iraq too formed a coalition government aimed at including political rivals and opponents. Today they are embroiled in a civil war. In order to avoid going down the same road of Iraq, Afghanistan needs immediate and effective reform. What it needs is a solid education system that revives the voices of moderates and liberals which in turn bolsters a unified political system able to project its political power into its waliyat and supports a growing economy.
Afghanistan is a country that has faced great difficulties and challenges and has managed to survive because of the spirit of its people. It is that spirit that will be needed to make it through the labor pains to come.