Looking Ahead in Afghanistan: A Conversation with Political Economist Timor Sharan
November 18, 2015
In Asia editor Alma Freeman spoke with Asia Foundation expert Timor Sharan from Kabul on reactions to this year’s Survey of the Afghan People, the challenges facing Afghanistan’s year-old National Unity Government, its changing role in the region, the need for an Afghan-led election dispute resolution mechanism, and more.
Afghanistan formed its first-ever National Unity Government last year, against a backdrop of a deteriorating economy and heightened security threats. This year’s survey reflects a decline in confidence in the young unity government. What do you think have been the biggest challenges it has faced?
In the last year, the biggest challenge the National Unity Government (NUG) experienced is the deterioration of the security situation in the country, spreading to the previously relatively secure regions of North East and North West. This was reflected in this year’s Survey of the Afghan People, with 44.6 percent saying that insecurity is the primary reason for the country moving in the wrong direction. A variety of factors may have influenced the security situation, including a significant withdrawal of international combat forces in 2014 which left the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) facing greatly increased pressure, the intensification of Taliban attacks, and the increased activity of foreign terrorist groups like ISIS and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan in Afghanistan. The political division and the failure to agree on a defense minister between the president, chief executive officer, and the Parliament further weakened the Afghan military response. The result was the collapse last month of Kunduz, Afghanistan’s fifth largest city.
The second major challenge the NUG has faced is unemployment and economic decline. A significant part of the Afghan economy depended on the international military spending in the country and donor-funded projects and contracts. Compounded with political uncertainty following the 2014 presidential elections, Afghanistan experienced a serious financial and human capital outflow. In the last year, thousands of young Afghans have left the country, with the Kabul Passport Office issuing more than 2,000 passports a day, a six-fold increase from the same time last year.
The third challenge is political. The NUG’s current structure of equal power-sharing makes it difficult to function as an effective, united government. This is particularly unfortunate at a time when the country is facing daunting challenges that could determine the future of political stability Afghanistan. In a government divided along personality and factions, not policy, every appointment and decision requires lengthy negotiation. The divisions are hindering a meaningful reform process and also negatively impacting the economy and security situation.
What do you see as the top three priorities the Afghan government should focus on in the coming year to counter these challenges?
First, fill the key senior positions as well as find effective mechanisms for deciding political appointments. A year and two months on, the government does not have an approved minister of defense or attorney general.
Second, it’s important for the government to balance its long-term planning and reform visions with quick and immediate gains to improve security, service delivery, and jobs. While the government has a long-term economic vision of regional trade and transit integration, increasing the country’s income by pulling from its natural resources, and initiating major infrastructure projects, these programs depend on major national and regional political and economic dynamics and would require years to deliver results. In the meantime, smaller and feasible initiatives should be implemented to address the service delivery needs of the population and increase public confidence in the government. The 2015 survey shows these two areas are crucial to Afghan citizens.
Third, the government has promised repeatedly to curb corruption. While some steps have been taken, such as the establishment of the National Procurement Office and the re-opening of the Kabul Bank investigation, these high-level reforms, while important and necessary, do not lead to tangible results in the lives of ordinary Afghans. These are not indicators of reduction of corruption for many Afghans who deal on a daily basis with the Afghan bureaucracy. The survey found 90 percent of Afghans say corruption is a problem in their daily lives. Tackling corruption in the justice sector, including the Attorney General’s Office, the courts, and service delivery institutions such as business licensing and tax offices, could improve the lives of citizens and reassure them of the government’s commitment to tackling corruption.
As Afghanistan and the new government grapple with simultaneous security, political, and economic challenges, what do you think are the most important steps that the government can take to restore the trust of the Afghan people in the coming year?
The survey indicates that the government is suffering from a decline in public confidence. To overcome this, first, the government needs to significantly improve its strategic communication. Because of the current divisions, the government is sending mixed messages about key issues, which does not inspire confidence. Second, it needs a centrally united and competent communication team. Third, it has to continuously manage expectations and honestly inform citizens about its limitations. This Administration often raises expectations by promising more than he can deliver. Speed and transparency is a key element of communication. As the recent demonstrations in Kabul over ISIS’ beheading of ethnic Hazara hostages illustrated, Afghan citizens are frustrated with a government that seems slow in responding to crisis and unacceptable levels of insecurity, further escalating tensions.
You said in a recent interview that Afghanistan’s role in the region is changing, and that President Ghani is looking to broaden the key stakeholders involved in the Afghan conflict. What does this mean for the region, and what do you see these changes looking like?
President Ghani’s vision requires collaboration from all regional stakeholders, including central Asian states, in combating what he sees as a regional conflict. While this is a more comprehensive approach to the conflict in Afghanistan, it heavily depends on how the countries in the region, particularly Pakistan, define their strategic interests in relation to Afghanistan. The President is also actively working to broaden the stakeholders involved by reaching out to China to help with the peace negotiations. The Chinese have their own unique relationship with Pakistan and they recently introduced the China Pakistan Economic Corridor with a budget of $46 billion as part of China’s One Belt and One Road initiative. Regional cooperation for peace will require a fundamental shift in Pakistan’s relationship with the Taliban in Afghanistan. The underlining assumption is that regional economic and trade integration needs will be the driving forces for a greater political cooperation for peace and prosperity in the region.
Looking to 2016, a Loya Jirga will be held to reform the constitution and decide the future President-CEO structure of the National Unity Government. What do you see coming out of this?
At the moment, a constitutional Loya Jirga in 2016 and even later seems highly unlikely. First, the prerequisites for a constitutional Loya Jirga, which requires a legitimate parliament and district council representatives, are not in place. In addition, the government lacks the financial resources and technical preparations to assemble a Jirga. Second, both leaders currently lack the political capital to influence Jirga results that would help set the agenda. There is a high risk of the agenda being derailed by groups who have vested interest in the failure of the NUG.
You said that one of the major issues of the 2014 election was that there was no Afghan-led election dispute resolution mechanism in place. Ahead of possible parliamentary elections next year, how important is it that such a mechanism is in place, and what role could it play in ensuring legitimacy?
The international community has invested heavily in the Afghan elections in the past 14 years. This investment has been significant both financially and politically. However, a major missing element has been an Afghan-led election dispute resolution mechanism, undermining the legitimacy of election results in Afghanistan. Without a credible dispute resolution mechanism in place, the most transparent elections in Afghanistan could theoretically lead to a dispute, with each group/candidate accusing the other of fraud and vote-rigging. Unfortunately, there are not many signs that this will change by the next parliamentary elections, especially as all bodies (i.e., the Election Reform Commission) are partisan and the AGO appointment is still pending.
On November 19 at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington, D.C., the author will join experts to discuss findings from the 2015 Survey of the Afghan People. The event will be web streamed live here.
Timor Sharan is director of The Asia Foundation’s Program Management Unit in Afghanistan. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org/Twitter: TSharan2. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation.
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