Turmoil-ridden Afghanistan entered a new phase of its political life on September 29, 2014 with Dr Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai taking over as president after he signed an agreement with his arch rival, Abdullah Abdullah for the formation of a national unity government, an idea brokered by the US secretary of state.
A unique arrangement, whereby a defeated candidate becomes a part of the government instead of being in the opposition, such an example is difficult to find in the annals of modern democratic history. However, a somewhat similar precedent can be found in American history when in the 1796 election, Thomas Jefferson after receiving the second highest number of electoral votes became vice-president. But the 1800 election exposed the defects of the system and it was thus discontinued. How far this will succeed in Afghanistan is something we will have to wait for but the chances of its success appear to be remote given the conditions prevailing in the country and the temperament of the Afghan people.
By accepting the American-brokered agreement for a national unity government and then signing the Bilateral Security Agreement, President Dr Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai paved the way for the stationing of the US residual force in his country and also ensured the inflow of foreign funds badly needed for the smooth sailing, for the time being at least, of his government.
Having accomplished the two most important tasks he is now occupied with short-listing candidates for his cabinet from among the many strong contenders who supported him in the elections. While he has to tread carefully in selecting the right candidates for the right jobs he also needs to take care of the side his chief executive represents to avoid cracks forming in the new setup right at the outset of his mandate. The selection of the candidates will also serve as an indicator of his preferences for steering the country out of the quagmire it has been in for the last so many decades.
Then he has to start with the daunting task of bringing peace to the country which cannot be done without making some kind of a deal with the Taliban. An equally important job for him would be setting the stage for improving relations with Pakistan, which is not only an immediate neighbour but also has vital stakes in Afghanistan.
Dr Ashraf Ghani will have to be extra careful to ensure that the agreement reached with Abdullah Abdullah for the national unity government endures. Unless there is genuine unity between them the new government will be unable to surmount the many challenges it faces, especially that from the Taliban. And if they do maintain unity that will send positive signals to the Taliban and be an advantage for striking a deal otherwise that will make it easy for the Taliban to make their presence felt in Kabul and that too in a big way.
The US will be completing withdrawal of its troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014 leaving only around 12000 troops in its nine military bases under the recently concluded agreement (BSA). Whether the signing of the BSA will weaken the resolve of the Taliban or not remains to be seen but their rejection of the new government immediately after its installation shows their intention of continuing the fight as best as they can so long as foreign forces are present in Afghanistan.
The only way to avoid that situation would either be the withdrawal of the residuary force from there or making some kind of a deal with the Taliban of which the Afghans are quite capable on their own – if not hindered by foreign interference.
The focus of the US has shifted from Afghanistan to the Middle East and it appears more inclined to sort out the issue of the Islamic State, if it can, rather than the problems in Afghanistan. Therefore, it is up to the Afghans to do whatever they can to sort out the Taliban problem since the US does not seem to be willing to waste more time on running after the Taliban for negotiations.
That is to be done by the Afghans and nowhere in the past has a situation been so conducive for initiating a peace process with the Taliban as it is now. Dr Ashraf Ghani has the distinct advantage of not having played any role in the Afghan wars nor did he enter Kabul riding an American tank. He is the right person for taking a bold initiative.
Despite having spent a staggering $640 billion from 2002 to 2013 the US did nothing for the development of Afghanistan. Most of the funds were spent on servicing foreign troops which are now about to leave or given as bounty to different factions or warlords to keep them on board. There is hardly any evidence of large-scale investment in agriculture or basic industry in the country. The government almost broke down recently not having enough money to pay salaries to more than half a million employees. Only signing the BSA ensured inflow of foreign funds for keeping the government afloat.
Dr Ashraf Ghani is a renowned economist with many ideas for development of his country but for that peace in the country is a prerequisite. And for peace he will have to work seriously and methodically to engage with the Taliban.
The Taliban, on their part, are keeping pressure on the government by showing a strong presence in 18 out of 34 provinces of the country. The province of Helmand will be the first casualty if the pressure increases and when that happens there will be a domino effect on other areas in the south and east. To avoid such a collapse the success story of the unity government assumes great significance.
Many believe that the president weakened his position by agreeing to the formation of a unity government and by giving to his rival the position of chief executive officer, a post for which the constitution will be amended in due course to give it legal cover. He could have easily refused to give this important position to Abdullah Abdullah and forced him to play the role of leader of the opposition but he preferred to accommodate him in his government for the sake of peace and security in the country.
Now it is for Abdullah Abdullah to reciprocate; the onus of maintaining unity lies solely on his shoulders which he should fulfil by faithfully implementing the policies of Dr Ghani rather than trying to overshadow or sabotage him through divergent actions. That is what the situation demands and that is what everybody expects for return of peace to the country.
At the same time as trying to tackle the Taliban problem the new government should also extend a hand of friendship towards Pakistan where the situation is conducive for constructive engagement. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has already sent his adviser on foreign affairs to Kabul to extend an invitation to President Ghani for a visit to Islamabad. It is likely that the Pakistani chief of army staff will also pay a goodwill visit to Kabul soon.
The time is ripe for striking a deal for peace both at home and abroad, with the Taliban and the government of Pakistan. Hopefully the new Afghan president will seize the opportunity.