In the recent U.S. presidential elections Afghanistan was not mentioned by either candidate. President-elect Trump, busily forming his national security team, has been silent thus far on the Afghan challenges. Yet the Afghanistan war is one of the longest American combats and nation building endeavors in history. Over 1800 Americans lost their lives, thousands wounded and billions of dollars spent since 2001. Despite the staggering investment in blood and treasure, Afghanistan cannot sustain herself politically, economically and more importantly security wise. Taliban are on the offensive and ISIS has established a foothold in eastern Afghanistan. Pakistan continues to support the Taliban against Afghanistan and the U.S. interests in the region. All this in the backdrop of a dysfunctional Afghan government could complicate matters for the incoming Trump administration.
Afghan National Unity Government is Divided and Sputtering
It has been two years since Afghan president Ashraf Ghani and Afghan chief executive Abdullah Abdullah have been in power. Contrary to the rosy pictures painted at the time, progress on many fronts has been dismal at best. The most important failure of the National Unity Government (NUG) has been a lack of progress in the crucial areas of electoral reform and constitutional changes. These reforms are necessary for the legitimacy of the NUG amid the deteriorating security situation, high unemployment, rampant institutional corruption and other problems. The country is divided along ethnic and tribal faults more than ever. To understand the root cause of the government of “national disunity,” it is helpful to recap what transpired at its formation in 2014.
Mr. Ghani is a Pashtun, the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan. He had to ally himself with Rasheed Dostom, a notorious Uzbek warlord from the north, to compensate for a shortfall of Pashtun votes. If Afghanistan is divided along ethnic and tribal fault lines and if the Pashtuns are the largest group, why did Ashraf Ghani need Dostom’s support? The reason is that many Pashtuns believe that they have been marginalized and that the international community’s intervention in Afghanistan conspired with the Northern Alliance against them. The Taliban are mostly Pashtuns. The Northern Alliance is mostly Tajik, but at times is in an uneasy coalition with Uzbeks and Hazaras as well. As a result, few Pashtuns participate in the electoral process, which is also grossly flawed. The presidential election of 2014 was mired by accusations of fraud, with both Ghani and Abdullah pointing fingers at each other. Abdullah went so far as to threaten the stability of the government. To prevent a potentially serious situation the U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry repeatedly intervened to bring the warring parties together. The result was the formation of the so-called Government of Unity which recognized Mr. Ghani as the president and appointed Mr. Abdullah as the chief executive, a position which does not exist in the country’s constitution.
The discord between chief executive Abdullah and his governing partner became so ugly that last summer Abdullah called Ghani “unfit” for office. But Abdullah toned down his public criticism of Ghani ahead of a crucial conference which took place in Brussels on October 4, 2016. NUG had to convince the donor countries that their continued investment in Afghanistan will be spent wisely. NUG presented a list of accomplishments on various fronts, but nothing relative to electoral reforms and constitutional change to strengthen the institution of the unity government. Abdullah has pledged that the NUG will continue for the entire five-year term of Ghani’s presidency.
The Afghan parliament exacerbated the disunity by recently dismissing a number of ministers in a vote of no confidence. It included the foreign minister, Sallahudin Rabbani, who has considerable political clout among the Northern Alliance group. The Afghan president Ghani ignored the parliament’s decision and the sacked ministers are still on the job.
Afghan National Security Forces Still Not Up to Snuff
Taliban advances in 2016 have shown that the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), which includes the police as well as the army, is incapable of holding back Taliban attacks without the support of NATO/US forces. The all-volunteer Afghan National Army (ANA) numbers about 170,000 troops, according to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction’s latest report. Ethnically, the majority of the ANA is made up of ethnic groups such as Tajiks and other groups from the north. The Pashtuns, which constitute the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, have little representation. Therefore, the ANA is essentially an ethno-tribal army and not a national army like the one that Afghanistan once fielded up until the late 1970s. The Afghan army was then an all conscript army drafted from every corner of the country and consisted of all tribes and ethnic groups (Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks, Turkmans et al.). ANSF is not able to reverse the Taliban’s gains with the current US support. To recapture territory, US/NATO will have to substantially increase its direct combat support to ANSF.
Expanding the U.S.’s role in Afghanistan in terms of more boots on the ground and more taxpayers’ money will be a major dilemma for the Trump administration. During the campaign, Mr. Trump indicated a lack of desire for nation building. He wants the U.S. allies to fend for themselves and pay the US for protecting them. We don’t yet know what Mr. Trump specifically has in mind about Afghanistan. Regionally, the tug of war between Pakistan and India continues unabated, negatively affecting the Afghan situation. Mr. Trump is also against the U.S. rapprochement with Iran. A unilateral abrogation of the recent Iranian nuclear deal could have adverse consequences for the U.S. and Afghanistan. Given these complexities, Afghan challenges may trump Trump’s other foreign policy problems.