By Chayanika Saxena
Blasts and the consequent loss of human lives and damage to property are, unfortunately, not new to Afghanistan. The dent that is caused to domestic faith and morale are even hard to repair than the shattered windows and broken doors. The rising height of the ‘security’ walls around the yet-so-vulnerable compounds is demonstrative of the deteriorating security conditions. And, an equally rapid pace at which trust in the prevailing political establishment in Afghanistan is dropping is making an already gloomy situation look hopeless and dejected.
A series of blasts in the Afghan capital less than a fortnight ago left scores injured and many dead. The deadliest attack that hit Kabul since the American entry on its soil began with a water-tanker being exploded, leaving a 13 feet deep crater on the road. This was followed by two consecutive attacks – alleged firing by the security forces at a protest gathering and a funeral service, respectively. While no group has so far claimed the responsibility for the explosion that rattled Kabul on May 31, the government of Afghanistan has been quick to point fingers at the Haqqani network working from Pakistan even as the Network’s hand-in-glove ally, Taliban, stated it very clearly that it was not behind the Wazir Akbar Khan attack.
Given Haqqani Network's complicity in damaging acts in the past and its extreme proximity to the Pakistani ISI, allegations of the Afghan government can potentially contain an element of factual correctness, however the people of Afghanistan are unwilling to see the buck stop with the establishment across the Durand Line alone. As the protest following the May 31st blast in Kabul (and the one in Herat) have come to show, a good deal of Afghans are not too satisfied with the efforts the present government is making to rescue the falling security conditions. In fact, its constant deflection of entire blame on international non-state and state entities is no longer whipping up public sentiments as it once used to.
Since its founding, the National Unity Government has stood for everything else except unity. Where its premise was based on an ethnic compromise in the hope that the coming together of the self-styled leaders of the Pashtun and Tajik community would foster cooperation between them, the vague provisions on which this government was made and the unsatisfactory, massively delayed implementation of some of the key tenets of the political agreement have only widened rifts within the political order of Afghanistan. Ethnic fault-lines have deepened and their exploitation for vested benefits are being constantly seen. Political loyalties in Afghanistan have been pretentiously nationalistic and in the garb of which, almost every single self-styled leader of any and every community has only bolstered their own political prospects, and that too often at the cost of the very same communities they claim to represent.
Rifts within the national government are too conspicuous to be missed. Right from the Chief Executive Officer to the first Vice President, many within the government have accused the Ghilzai Pashtun President, Ashraf Ghani of favoritism towards his own community. What more? The serving Foreign Minister in the present government has hinted at probable non-cooperation and withdrawal of support from the government unless those leading the Afghan National Directorate of Security are sacked. In fact, many within the government have not shied away from claiming that the blasts that followed – against a protest gathering and at a funeral service – smelled of governmental connivance.
Those witnessing such churnings, especially the educated youth in the major cities of Afghanistan and the minorities, have taken to the streets to protest what they believe is sheer nepotism within the government. Right from protesting an alleged change in the route of an electricity transmission project to those demanding better security for women on the streets, the incumbent government has drawn public flak for its incapacity to administer rule of law effectively and deliver the basic services expected of it.
Where the domestic constituencies remain unsatisfied with the performance of the present government and those that preceded it, the international donors supporting Afghanistan's (crumbling) experiment with democracy are equally concerned. For the United States alone, its presence in Afghanistan has been longer than the time it had spent in Vietnam. Besides the military reversals that it has seen in the last two years since the ‘drawdown’ of 2014 the money it has spent/invested in this landlocked country, according to reports, is more than what it had spent on the Marshall Plan that rebuilt almost the whole of Western Europe. The popular opinion in the US is against the continuation of investment of time, money and men in Afghanistan. It is, however, equally clear that pulling back from this country will be far more dangerous. Having said so, the new administration in Washington is yet to wrap its head around the Afghan crisis firmly. Almost six months into its tenure and the Trump administration is still lacking a clear plan-of-action in Afghanistan. On the one hand, where the Secretary of State had once hinted at the ‘eventual settlement between Kabul and Taliban’, a statement made by James Mattis of late has indicated things to the contrary. Preceded by news of probable plans to send more American troops to Afghanistan and the dropping of the ‘mother-of-all-bombs’ on the supposed hideouts of ISIS in Afghanistan, Mattis was quoted saying ‘we are not surrendering civilization to those who cannot win at the ballot box’, hinting at the possibility that the American way ahead might be more muscular than political or diplomatic. While such statements and anticipated military-heavy actions do not mean the end of road for political reconciliation, it does show its lack of faith in this process at this stage. Coming at a time when Kabul was organizing a 25-nations international peace process (“Kabul Process”), the American administration, it seems, does not repose much faith in either Afghan-led or not-Afghan-led peace process even as they were party to this meeting.
Those sitting in Brussels are also running out of patience with the lack of political integrity in Afghanistan. Mired in corruption, the European Union and its constituent countries have begun attaching conditions to the disbursal of their aid in the hope that this carrot-and-stick policy might be able to bring about a change in the attitude of the political leaders of a country that the former Prime Minister of United Kingdom had called ‘fantastically corrupt’. For India, which is the fifth largest bilateral donor to Afghanistan, the current National Unity Government had inspired less confidence, strategically, to begin with. As the Afghan President began his tenure tilting more towards the Rawalpindi-Islamabad axis, India was left high and dry being shoved into the second outermost circle of Ghani’s five-circle foreign policy. Concerned, and rather miffed at the change of stance, India did not however, halt its investment towards projects it was working on in Afghanistan. Showing caution at the changing ties but not losing its patience, India continued to extend its material support to Afghanistan commenting little on the internal dynamics of the National Unity Government as it was aware that the government in power was better than those who are not.
As the things stand today, there are just too many rifts within the National Unity Government than it can hide. Two years away from its fourth Presidential run-offs post-2001, Afghanistan is yet to witness substantial electoral changes that will be able to ensure its domestic populace and international audience of freer, fairer and more secure elections. The absence of recognized, formal political parties that can galvanize ethnic divergences for the benefit of Afghanistan’s fledgling democracy implies that cleavages will continue to be exploited and the ordinary people of this country will continue to become victims of political vendetta.
Afghanistan is in dire need of a political fix. Where reconciling with Taliban is necessary to ensure peace and security in the country, the process to bring about this has to begin with the existing political class at home. It is necessary that those in power are invested in the political re-building of this country through constructive mobilization of their respective social, cultural support. While it is known that those leading the lots are affected by their international political patrons, constant deflection of all the blame to such ‘extra-national’ forces is no longer bankable claim. Having been to polls – for whatever they were worth – and believing in the strength of democracy, the people of Afghanistan are getting impatient not only with the unfulfilled promises but with the charade of helplessness that the existing political class has been displaying. It is time that these peace conferences that aim to unite the regional and international players to stop the chaos in Afghanistan are complemented by earnest political introspection and reform within Afghanistan.
Chayanika Saxena is a Research Assistant at S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore and is pursuing MSc in International Relations. She has been a researcher on Afghanistan for over five years, having published widely on Afghanistan and beyond on various platforms. A speaker of Dari, she specializes in geo-political challenges to domestic political establishment in Afghanistan.