Rival Afghan Leaders Agree to Share Power—Now Comes the Hard Part

Ashraf Ghani shakes hands with rival Abdullah Abdullah after both addressed reporters at in Kabul on July 12, 2014 about the details of the U.S.-brokered National Unity Government agreement. (U.S. Department of State)
Ashraf Ghani shakes hands with rival Abdullah Abdullah after both addressed reporters at in Kabul on July 12, 2014 about the details of the U.S.-brokered National Unity Government agreement. (U.S. Department of State)

What led to President Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah finally resolving their dispute over the 2019 presidential elections? What does the agreement entail?

Worden: One of the biggest obstacles to intra-Afghan negotiations with the Taliban has been political divisions on the side of the Afghan state over the disputed 2019 presidential election results. As in 2014, President Ghani was declared the winner of the election and Abdullah came in second. But significant irregularities and fraud caused Abdullah and his political allies to reject the result.

In a well-established democracy, an election loss serves as an invitation to revise policy ideas and enhance party networks to get a better result in the next election. In Afghanistan, the presidency has enormous powers of national appointments down to the district level, few checks from Parliament or the courts, and is seen as a “winner-take-all” position. Therefore, a post-election political agreement has become a means to ensure a reasonably inclusive government that gives some power to electoral losers before the next election.

  • First, it gives Abdullah a leadership role in the peace process. He became the head of a new High Council of National Reconciliation, which will include a diverse array of political leaders and will set strategy and direction for the Afghan state’s negotiations with the Taliban.
  • Second, it gives Abdullah and his supporters the ability to nominate half of the cabinet positions and a significant number of provincial governors.
  • Third, it makes commitments to holding Provincial and District Council elections, which will enable a Constitutional Loya Jirga (or Grand Council) to consider constitutional reforms that could devolve some powers of the presidency.
  • Finally, it creates a separate High Council of Government that will give a prominent advisory role to former leaders and powerbrokers on significant matters of state.

The unfortunate part of the deal is that it took so long to reach. The concept of an inclusive governance team with peace as its first priority was well discussed among political elites before the presidential election campaign even began. It took 33 weeks from the election date to make it a reality. During that time, momentum toward negotiations with the Taliban stalled, violence and civilian casualties escalated dramatically, the U.S. signed an agreement with the Taliban and began its troop withdrawal, and then COVID-19 hit.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Kabul on March 23 in hopes of cementing a political agreement between Ghani and Abdullah, and left without one. On his way out of the country he announced a $1 billion cut in U.S. assistance—roughly 20 percent of the annual U.S. total. The threat of a further $1 billion funding cut, the need to fight COVID, and the need for a unified position against the Taliban both on the battlefield and at the negotiating table appear to have combined to produce a deal whose outlines were visible before the election began.

The 2014 National Unity Government (NUG) agreement lasted five years but was considered by many to be ineffective. What are the chances this political agreement will perform better?

Worden: The 2014 NUG agreement defied the adage that a good compromise is one that both parties are unhappy with. The United States brokered the agreement after a bitterly contested and ethnically charged election. That agreement gave the presidency to Ghani and created a chief executive officer position for Abdullah with his own staff, appointment powers, and role in governance decisions. In the end, the most significant provisions of the agreement were never implemented, with both sides feeling they got a raw deal.

The current political agreement is more limited in its scope. It eliminates the CEO position and limits the High Council of National Reconciliation to control of the peace process rather than broader governance functions. It calls for an examination of constitutional reform but makes no commitments to a formal amendment process. This will make implementation a bit more likely, but not easy.

The first test of the current political agreement will be the creation of the High Council of National Reconciliation. If it can be done swiftly without major political dissent, it will be a quick win. Interpretation of the political appointment powers for cabinet ministries and provincial governors will be the next big test. This is where the 2014 NUG agreement went off the rails. Will President Ghani accept Abdullah’s nominees? Will they agree on which ministries and governors can be appointed by Abdullah? Finally, what will be the actual instructions from the High Council of National Reconciliation to the negotiators once intra-Afghan negotiations begin, and will Ghani exercise his presidential powers to honor them?

The agreement caveats that peace negotiations are subject to (unspecified) constitutional limits. If the Taliban and members of the High Council of National Reconciliation want to move quickly to an agreement on an interim government that curtails Ghani’s elected five-year term, for example, a constitutional crisis could undo the political agreement early in the process. While the political agreement does a good job of sharing power among the political factions that oppose the Taliban, intra-Afghan negotiations may reopen the agreed formulas as the Taliban seek a greater share of power within the government.

Taliban violence has surged despite the U.S.-Taliban agreement, and now the Afghan government has restarted offensive operations as well. Are the two sides rejecting peace?

Walsh: The soaring violence level, though somewhat typical of the spring “fighting season” in Afghanistan, threatens to close a rare opportunity for peace. As part of the U.S.-Taliban agreement, the group agreed to stop certain forms of violence; this appears to include halting attacks against Afghan cities, some large Afghan bases, and all U.S. and international forces. The Taliban strategy has generally been to obey the letter of these commitments, but to surge attacks elsewhere—leading to an onslaught of violence in the countryside and against smaller Afghan bases. By some measures this has caused a 70 percent increase in Taliban attacks over the same period last year.

For several weeks after the U.S.-Taliban deal, the Afghan government limited itself to defensive operations, despite Ghani’s clear skepticism about parts of the U.S.-Taliban deal. On May 12, Ghani ordered a resumption of offensive operations. Though this order was probably inevitable given the volume of Taliban attacks, the immediate cause was a pair of horrific attacks (one against a maternity ward in Kabul) that ISIS appears to have conducted the same day—itself a reminder of how easily outside spoilers can stall progress toward peace. The upshot is that even if diplomatic efforts move forward, Afghanistan is likely to remain the world’s most violent place over the coming months.

On one hand, neither side’s choices equate precisely to rejecting peace talks. The Taliban do not want their agreement with the U.S. to unravel, Ghani and most Afghans unquestionably desire a full cease-fire, both sides understand the principle of “fight and talk,” and belligerents around the world often seek leverage by increasing violence before negotiations start. On the other, the violence is gravely undermining the parties’ faith in each other. The Afghan government and Taliban accuse each other of bad faith, and this deep suspicion empowers hardliners on both sides who already oppose any serious compromise. Even peace processes that begin with simultaneous “fighting and talking” tend eventually to reach a point at which they cannot coexist; Afghanistan may be nearing this point.

Could the Ghani-Abdullah agreement reignite the peace process?

Walsh: The agreement could certainly improve the Afghan government’s ability to negotiate cohesively, which heretofore has been no less a challenge to peace efforts than the government’s and Taliban’s mutual dislike. This agreement puts the election dispute behind the government, establishes a reasonable mechanism for diverse Afghan elites to weigh in on peace efforts, and dovetails with Ghani’s naming of a diverse and inclusive negotiating team led by the capable and respected Massoum Stanekzai. The ability of Ghani, Abdullah, and other Afghan leaders to cooperate on peace negotiations will face continual strain; this is natural in a country as heterogeneous as Afghanistan. The agreement at least helps complete a reasonable framework for the government to advance its own diplomatic efforts.

It has little if any effect on the Taliban. Nothing in the agreement itself will prompt the Taliban to reduce violence levels, or to soften its stance on the other issues impeding the start of talks with the government (notably a program of prisoner releases). The larger peace process depends on addressing these issues, and then persuading the two sides to begin negotiating. The main contribution of the Ghani-Abdullah agreement is to give the government a better chance of negotiating effectively.

Rival Afghan Leaders Agree to Share Power—Now Comes the Hard Part