On Monday, in the first ever democratic transfer of power in the country’s history, Ashraf Ghani was sworn in as Afghanistan’s new president. The inauguration comes after six months of bitter dispute over the election results and as a result of a power-sharing deal brokered by the US. Ghani’s political rival, Abdullah Abdullah, will become chief executive officer. So, having passed this momentous mile-stone, what is next on the agenda for Afghanistan? In essence, Ghani and Abdullah face the same type of pressures that all leaders do – how to keep people safe, how to create jobs, how to ensure equal rights for all – they just face much more difficult and entrenched problems than most.
Issue one for both men will be how is this partnership to work? The position of CEO is a new one for Afghanistan and outwith the bounds of the country’s current constitution. Because of this, the Loya Jirga (the tribal leaders’ assembly) will need to meet at some point within the next two years to decide whether the constitution should be amended to create a prime ministerial position of the CEO. In the meantime, Abdullah will head a weekly conference of the Ministers’ Council, and make recommendations to the president, but will not have the power to decide upon policy – this responsibility will remain with the president’s cabinet. How exactly this set-up will work out in practical terms remains to be seen. One thing that is certain, however, is that given Afghanistan’s shaky start to democracy (including accusations of election fraud thrown at Ghani), both the new president and the CEO need to work together to ensure the smooth running of the government from here on out.
As a former World Bank economist, Ghani is perhaps more qualified than most to try to tackle the task of rejuvenating Afghanistan’s economy – which is just as well given its current state. For, despite years of western-led projects designed to make the country economically self-sustaining, the Afghan government still faces a budget short-fall of roughly 20%. The rough election process has also taken its toll on the economy. And while substantial international aid has helped make improvements in areas such as health and education, there is still much left for Ghani to do.
With the withdrawal of international troops from the country to be completed by 2015, Ghani needs to ensure that Afghanistan does not consequently slide backwards when it comes the matter of security. Which is exactly why he signed the Bilateral Security Agreement with the US on Tuesday, just a day after taking office. The agreement allows for 9,800 US soldiers to remain in Afghanistan after 2014 to help train, equip and advise the native military and police forces. Both India and China also appear to be taking more of an interest in supporting Afghanistan in its security issues. And although Ghani used his inaugural speech to call for peace talks with the Taliban, previous attempts at coming to an understanding with the group have failed. In fact, with the Taliban taking advantage of the recent political uncertainty to launch concerted offensives in some areas of the country, the president and his CEO will be looking for all the help they can get.
Unfortunately for Ghani, this reliance on external help comes at a price. In needing to accept foreign aid, the new president will be forced to also accept foreign influence (and, potentially, interference) over Afghanistan’s domestic affairs. The Taliban, for example, have accused Ghani of being a US puppet. Throughout its history, Afghanistan has arguably had to walk a line between the competing interests of foreign powers looking to gain influence over Kabul for their own ends. While the days of Great Game rivalry may be at an end, undoubtedly tensions still remain between the likes of India, Pakistan and China when it comes to their Afghan policies. Having said this, there currently appears to be more of a move towards regional cooperation among these Asian nations, as it becomes increasingly obvious that a stable and peaceful Afghanistan would be of benefit to all concerned parties.
Despite some progess in this area, Afghanistan is still one of the worst countries in the world in which to be a woman. In 2013 violence against women reached record levels, despite the Elimination of Violence against Women Act (EVAW) having been passed in 2009. Female adult literacy rates are around the measly 12% range and women still face discrimination in all walks of life, from politics to marriage to access to health care and education. Crucially, progress cannot be made in Afghanistan in any other arena until these issues are addressed. Amnesty International’s campaign, ‘Talk to me, not about me’, highlights the importance of including Afghan women in the national and international political process. Security cannot be attained until women are included in the peace talks; the economy cannot be revived until women are afforded proper education and access to jobs; and Afghanistan cannot address internal issues of violence and extremism until acts such as the EVAW are taken more seriously.