Dr Ashraf Ghani’s inauguration as Afghanistan’s president on September 29 this year marked the first democratic transfer of power in Afghanistan. Ghani will share power with his political rival Abdullah Abdullah, who was sworn in as the country’s first chief executive, a portfolio created after the US brokered a power-sharing agreement between Ghani and Abdullah. The peaceful transition of power is a historic milestone in Afghanistan’s evolving constitutional history. Ghani’s background, an international development expert and former Afghan finance minister (2002-04), makes him the most suitable man to lead Afghanistan at this critical juncture. Ghani has inherited a weak state apparatus from his predecessor Hamid Karzai. From the outset, he is facing daunting challenges.
Ghani’s immediate challenge will be to build a strong and spirited team. Only an honest and capable team, selected on merit, can ensure good governance and implement an agenda of economic reforms. Ghani’s position as a president in a unity government is weaker than that of an independent president. He has not come to power on the back of a popular vote, but as a result of a deal. He will have less independence to appoint his trusted people in key government positions. Tackling vested interests and power-brokers, who were empowered during the Karzai era will be difficult. Such power-brokers will ask for their share in the pie by seeking powerful position in the government.
Economic well-being is critical for Afghanistan’s future stability. Since 2011, Afghanistan is facing a looming fiscal crisis visible through worsening domestic revenues. Reviving the shrinking Afghan economy and putting it on a path of stability and self-sustenance is Ghani’s biggest challenge. The Afghan government does not have the capability to create employment opportunities for job-seeking youth. Afghanistan lacks the funds needed to deal with problems of bad governance, unemployment and corruption. Currently, 90 per cent of Afghanistan’s budget depends on foreign aid and funding from international donor agencies. After 2014, this spending will decrease quite considerably.
The Ghani Administration also faces the daunting task of ensuring a strong Afghan security apparatus that can face an emboldened Taliban insurgency. The Afghan Army and police are ill-equipped and poorly trained to take on the Taliban. From next year, around 350,000 Afghan forces will be Afghanistan’s first line of defence in the fight against the Taliban. The growing number of attacks by the Taliban will stretch the capacity of the Afghan forces in the absence of the 150,000-strong international troops. The Taliban still pose a grave security challenge to national stability in Afghanistan. They have rejected the national unity government in Afghanistan. The two high-profile attacks mounted by the Taliban near the Kabul airport on September 29, when Ghani and Abdullah were taking oath, underscores the kind of threat the Ghani-Abdullah Administration has to deal with. The recent increase in the Taliban attacks will only worsen next year. The Taliban will double up their efforts to recapture the territories vacated by Nato troops.
The signing of the Bilateral Security Agreement will put the estranged US-Afghanistan relations back on track. However, in future, the positive trajectory of Afghanistan’s relations with the US and the international donor community will heavily depend on Ghani’s economic reforms and anti-corruption agenda.
At the regional level, Ghani’s biggest challenge will be how he handles Afghanistan’s ties with India and Pakistan. In the last few years, Afghanistan has emerged as an extended arena of India-Pakistan rivalry. Ghani needs the former for foreign investment, reconstruction of infrastructure and training of Afghan manpower in different fields, while he needs the latter to reinitiate the stalled peace process with the Taliban.
The lessons of civil wars in Iraq and Syria leave very little room for proxy games, policy inactions and abandonment in Afghanistan. Such lessons will compel regional countries to rethink their Afghan policies. Continuation of turf battles and proxy wars will only strengthen the hands of extremists and terrorists. It also drives home the point that a stable, responsible and inclusive representation is essential for stability in Afghanistan. The problems in Afghanistan are regional in nature and require collective efforts of regional and international community. Afghanistan’s slide into chaos will put regional peace and stability at peril. A stable and peaceful Afghanistan holds the key to regional peace.