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Homepage > Regions / Countries > Asia > South Asia > Afghanistan > Afghanistan’s Political Transition

Afghanistan’s Political Transition

Asia Report N°260 16 Oct 2014


Ashraf Ghani was inaugurated as president of Afghanistan on 29 September, under difficult circumstances. He inherited a government that is running out of money and losing ground to a rising insurgency. His ability to confront those problems and other challenges as foreign troops withdraw will be shaped by the aftermath of the political contest that brought him to power. Forming a national unity government with his election rival Abdullah Abdullah presents opportunities to stabilise the transition, preventing further erosion of state cohesiveness. Yet, it also poses risks, particularly of factionalism within Kabul, which could undermine urgently needed reforms. Given the international role in developing the agreements that have created this new partnership, and the absence of mechanisms to resolve internal differences, the international community should serve as a guarantor of Kabul’s new political order and, if necessary, mediate any serious disputes that arise.

Political transitions in Afghanistan have always been fraught. The transfer of power in 2014 may yet prove the most peaceful handover of leadership in the country’s history, despite the tensions that emerged in the process. Hamid Karzai now stands as the only Afghan leader to have voluntarily surrendered his office, and his legacy will be further strengthened if he uses his considerable influence to make the next administration a success and refrains from trying to control the new president.

Karzai’s departure was mandated by the constitution, but a genuine contest to replace him was never guaranteed. In 2013 and early 2014, Western diplomats pushed their Afghan counterparts to ensure the election would go ahead as planned and Afghan elites engaged in a vigorous struggle over the rules and authorities that would govern the process. The absence of a dominant candidate led to colourful campaigns ahead of the 5 April first round, and all the major slates included candidates from a diverse mix of ethnicities, tribes and political factions – which meant that the first round did not place significant stress on the traditional fault lines of Afghan society. Urban areas enjoyed a celebratory mood after the apparently successful first round, which encouraged observers to overlook signs of fraud.

The second round became far more divisive as ethnic Pashtuns and Uzbeks rallied in large numbers around the Pashtun candidate Ghani and his Uzbek running mate Abdul Rashid Dostum; at the same time, Abdullah’s ticket became identified mainly with ethnic Tajiks and some powerful Hazara factions. These divisions were aggravated by a perception in the Abdullah camp that Karzai, a Pashtun himself, threw the resources of the presidency behind Ghani before the 14 June run-off. Abdullah’s supporters threatened violent action after preliminary results showed Ghani winning, which prompted urgent international mediation, and a 12 July deal to audit all of the votes and give the losing party a role in a unity government.

This gave rise to an extended standoff between the Ghani and Abdullah campaigns, as the two sides disagreed about how votes should be disqualified for fraud and how the next administration might include both teams. The impasse was broken when Ghani and Abdullah signed a four-page agreement on 21 September, promising a “genuine and meaningful partnership” that made Ghani president and gave Abdullah the freshly created role of chief executive officer who answers to the president but has powers similar to that of an executive prime minister.

Abdullah strengthened the legitimacy of the new government by publicly acknowledging Ghani as the next president, but their arrangement will face serious tests in the coming months as the two sides negotiate the appointment of cabinet ministers, governors and other key officials. Disenchanted voters will also likely want to see final results from the electoral commissions, which have so far not published any tallies.

Ghani and Abdullah must also steer the government through some urgent business in the coming weeks, including satisfying the requirements of the Financial Action Task Force and the Tokyo Mutual Accountability Framework, to prevent Afghanistan from being blacklisted by financial institutions and ensure continued donor support. The new government did, however, sign the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the U.S. one day after Ghani’s inauguration, followed the same day by signing the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with NATO. The two agreements allow the continued presence of ten-thousand-plus foreign forces after December 2014, in addition to technical, fiscal and material support to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). Still, the new government will need to persuade donors to give billions of dollars to maintain the ANSF personnel roster in the coming years and provide technical capabilities such as air support. Even with some foreign troops staying in the country, Afghanistan’s security forces will likely face unprecedented challenges during the 2015 fighting season.

Some of the damage to the reputation of democracy in Afghanistan, after such a bruising process, might also be repaired with a transparent review of lessons that could be applied to strengthen the 2015 parliamentary and 2019 presidential elections. Such a review, with the potential for reconsidering laws, regulations, and even the constitution, may allow for some dilution of the winner-takes-all and overly centralised presidential system, as well as other necessary reforms. A shakeup of the Kabul elites may also provide a rare opportunity to reduce corruption, provided Ghani and Abdullah are willing to confront the entrenched interests of their own supporters.

Despite rising violence, the behaviour of Taliban commanders during the second round of voting suggests a capacity for political behaviour by the insurgents that could, with time, potentially turn into an opening for negotiations about how to eventually resolve the conflict. Ghani has offered political talks to the Taliban and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hizb-e Islami, but he must avoid any unilateral attempts to reach out to the insurgents; if done without Abdullah’s active participation and backing, such efforts could risk unravelling the national unity government and hence a fragile political transition.


Afghanistan and its donors must focus on the cohesion of the unity government while rapidly implementing promised reforms. This will require continued financial and material assistance from donors, including support for Afghan security forces. President Ashraf Ghani must proceed quickly with his stated plans, including anti-corruption measures, constitutional reform, improvements to the electoral system, and political engagement with insurgents. At the same time, he must avoid unilateral action that could alienate his partners in the new government.

To ensure the cohesion of the new government

To the incoming government of Afghanistan:

1.  Move ahead quickly with reforms described in Ashraf Ghani’s manifesto, with the understanding that efforts to reduce corruption and disrupt mafias within the state apparatus must not provide an opportunity for new criminal networks to become entrenched in government, and that any reforms must balance the interests of all stakeholders.

2.  Publish the timeline appended to the 21 September agreement, the special protocol for the chief executive officer, and any other additional texts to the 12 July and 21 September agreements, so that the Afghan public has a full understanding of the deals that underpin the unity government.

To the UN, U.S., and other donors:

3.  In cooperation with other members of the international community, work to safeguard the 12 July and 21 September agreements. This will include the UN using its good offices to help resolve differences and other influential international actors mediating any serious disputes that may arise between the signatories or their supporters, and encouraging regional powers to play a constructive role by pressing Afghan factions to assume moderate positions and eschew violence.

To prepare for the 2015 parliamentary and 2019 presidential elections

To the incoming government of Afghanistan:

4.  Start immediately planning for the next elections. This will include establishing the election reform commission, outlined in the political agreement, which should review the conduct of the 2014 elections and audit process; providing a public explanation of its findings, and offering measures to help remedy shortcomings, particularly by building confidence in electoral institutions; publishing the detailed results of the 14 June run-off vote; and working toward a new voter registry.

To the UN and donor countries:

5.  Assist the Afghan government with its review of the 2014 elections and its preparations for the 2015 parliamentary and 2019 presidential elections, with a view toward sustained international political support and technical involvement in the short term. In the long term, strengthening Afghan institutions should make such foreign assistance unnecessary.

To ensure the future stability of the Afghan state

To the incoming government of Afghanistan:

6.  Address the economic crisis with steps such as satisfying the requirements of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) and the Tokyo Mutual Accountability Framework (TMAF), to prevent Afghanistan from being blacklisted by financial institutions and ensure continued support from donors.
7.  Strengthen governance with reforms such as reviewing the structure of government in the proposed constitutional Loya Jirga with a view to diluting the centralisation of power in Kabul, including by devolving some responsibilities to elected local officials; in addition, seize the opportunity presented by the leadership transition to remove corrupt and abusive figures from government and security posts.

To the UN and donor countries:

8.  Provide commitments of financial support for Afghan security forces at approximately their current force strength until the insurgency diminishes; in addition, assist the ANSF to resolve capacity gaps in areas such as close air support, tactical airlift, over-the-horizon surveillance, logistics and battlefield medical evacuation.
9.  Address the economic crisis with urgent steps to ensure the fiscal solvency of the new government; reiterate ongoing commitments and ensure predictability of support; and, if necessary, delay the TMAF review until spring 2015 to give the new government additional time for preparations.

Kabul/Brussels, 16 October 2014

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