Can Afghanistan Be Saved?

September 6, 2018 Topic: Security Region: Middle East Tags: AfghanistanDemocracyElectionTalibanPashtun

Can Afghanistan Be Saved?

Kabul is a democracy in name only.

Scenarios for the Next Year

Afghanistan’s upcoming polls will almost certainly see sizable rigging. But in a low probability scenario, we could see significant irregularities in polls that nonetheless produce results that are acceptable and give Afghanistan a Pashtun president willing to make constitutional accommodations to non-Pashtuns. The legitimacy of the Afghan political system would be then renewed by continued elite buy-in and polls that have a modicum of credibility, which would modestly increase Kabul’s ability to withstand a resilient insurgency.

It is, however, more likely that some or all of the upcoming elections will be postponed. Assuming that the parliamentary elections take place this October, a probable scenario is that large-scale rigging during these polls results in the postponement of next year’s presidential polls or dangerously raises the political temperature in the lead-up to them and their aftermath. The results of the presidential polls, should they be held, would be rejected by the losers—mainly non-Pashtuns. And, at the same time, the Taliban would continue to maintain or expand control over territory. The Afghan system would be in a full-fledged crisis of legitimacy, with the major factions currently participating in the political process moving closer toward civil war.

Fortunately, virtually all local and external actors in Afghanistan would like to avert an outright civil war. One could see the Taliban exploit a power vacuum in Kabul and directly engage non-Pashtun political forces in a process endorsed by countries sidelined by the United States: China, Iran, Pakistan and Russia. In this scenario, the United States and India would be the odd men out and the Europeans would occupy some position in the middle.

An Interim Government and a Loya Jirga


Given the high probability that Afghanistan’s presidential polls will either not take place or will lack the requisite credibility, an extra-constitutional mechanism may be necessary to ensure elite cohesion in Afghanistan. Some non-Pashtuns have floated the idea of a two-year interim government .

While an interim government may be able to bring short-term political stability and oversee elections, it is unlikely to have the authority to negotiate with the Taliban or make changes to the constitution. It will probably be necessary to convene a loya jirga.

A loya jirga could be convened to resolve disputes over the election and modify the constitution to address the demands of both the Taliban as well as non-Pashtun political forces.

While the Afghan constitution allows for the convening of a loya jirga to amend the constitution, it must be composed of elected legislators and officials. To broaden the tent in Afghanistan, however, the Taliban and tribal leaders should be included.

A loya jirga would be no panacea. Consensus-building processes are messy and drawn-out. Jamiat and the Taliban could make conflicting demands. But a traditional consensus-building process is more likely than a winner-take-all democratic process to expand the political tent in Afghanistan and address the formalities of power-sharing.

Many in the international community might see an interim government and loya jirga as setbacks for the institutionalization of democracy in Afghanistan. But Afghanistan is a democracy in name only. Yes, it has elections. But its president came to power through rigging and the tenure of the lower house of parliament tenure expired three years ago. The president appoints and fires governors at will. And warlords and insurgents control or contest most of the country.

A democratic façade was imposed on Asia’s poorest and most fractured country. An extra-constitutional approach may be necessary to keep the country together.

Arif Rafiq ( @arifcrafiq) is a nonresident fellow at the Middle East Institute and president of Vizier Consulting, LLC , a political risk advisory company focusing on the Middle East and South Asia.

Image: A U.S. Army Task Force Brawler CH-47F Chinook conducts a training exercise at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, March 26, 2018. Picture taken March 26, 2018. U.S. Air Force/Tech. Sgt. Gregory Brook/Handout via REUTERS. ​