Afghanistan needs a caretaker government

Arif Rafiq

A caretaker government staffed by respected officials and ministers should preside over the elections to ensure that Afghanistan doesn’t face another crisis ahead of a high stakes election. In March, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan triggered a tiff with Afghanistan by telling a group of local journalists that an interim government is necessary in Kabul to oversee the elections.

Khan’s on-the-record comments were ill-considered given that Afghans are particularly sensitive to what they regard as Pakistani interference in their country’s affairs. But Khan’s intent was good, and his counsel was sound. The idea of an interim or caretaker government has significant support within the diplomatic community in Kabul and even among Afghan power brokers who recognise the current constitution. There is no indication that the proposal originated in Pakistan.

The first person to publicly call for an interim government appears to have been Ahmad WaliMassoud, a leader with the Jamiat i Islami party. Many actors realise that should Ashraf Ghani continue as president past the expiration of his term in May, both the fragile peace process with the Taliban and the survival of the Afghan political system in its present form will be at risk. Regardless of where they stand on the idea of an interim government today, the international community, and the United States, in particular, will be faced with having to choose between Ghani and the Afghan system, and Ghani and a peace deal with the Taliban.

To be clear, Ghani is no villain. He is more like a Shakespearean hero with a tragic flaw. Ghani loves his country and desires that it attains the peace and development it deserves. But he is an arrogant man, seeing himself as the sole person who can save Afghanistan. That flaw primarily translates into paternalistic authoritarianism. Ghani is prone to lecturing and micromanaging, playing the role of a “grand ustad” or teacher.

Ghani’s arrogant belief that he alone can save Afghanistan also translates into more destructive, albeit non-violent, behaviour. He will go to any lengths to stay in power and keep his rivals at bay. This has been a feature of his presidency from day one. Though Ghani ostensibly leads a “national unity government,” he has sidelined his partner, Chief Executive Officer Dr Abdullah from the start, refusing to implement the reforms agreed to in their post-election accord. Ghani even began talks with a northern strongman, Atta Nur, to replace Abdullah, and then ended up ousting Nur from the governorship of the Balkh province. Key indicators in Afghanistan are incredibly worrying. Deaths of Afghan civilians and security forces continue to break record highs – and pro-government forces now surpass the Taliban in killing civilians. But as Rome burns, Ghani remains fixated on the Afghan game of thrones.

Ghani began the year by sacking the deputy chief executive officer of the country, who is a running mate of one of his presidential election rivals. He then fired the police chief of the Balkh province, who was allied with rival Nur, triggering violent clashes in the north. Ghani’s term as president expires on May 22. He wants to stay in power up through the elections, which have been rescheduled for September, and then win reelection should the polls take place.

This month, the Supreme Court of Afghanistan extended Ghani’s term as president up through the polls. It’s reasonable to assume that the court was following a directive by Ghani himself. As US-Taliban talks advance, Afghan elites recognise the present constitution needs to unite and serve as a counterweight to the Taliban’s extremist politics and work to preserve the socio-political gains since the ouster of the Taliban in 2001.

Afghanistan needs a consensus builder, but Ghani has been working to fracture his opponents and disrupt the peace process. Ghani’s priority is not peace talks with the Taliban, but the preservation of his power. In fact, an unnamed former US official told Reuters that Ghani “hoped that the United States would fail to reach an agreement [with the Taliban] before the vote so the ballot can move forward.” As preparations began for a second round of intra-Afghan talks in Doha, Qatar, Ghani’s administration actively worked to sabotage the effort. In March, Afghan security forces raided the home of Abdul Salam Zaeef, a former senior Taliban official who reconciled with Kabul and has played a role in the intra-Afghan dialogue.

Ghani’s team then somehow assumed a role of determining who would attend the Doha talks, expanding the list to nearly 300 attendees. The Taliban compared the Ghani’s administration’s antics to preparations of a list of invitees to a “wedding.” American officials have tied a final deal with the Taliban to an intra-Afghan accord. US special envoy for Afghan peace Ambassador ZalmayKhalilzad said that “there is no final agreement until everything is agreed.” Ghani is willing to jeopardise the peace process to stay in power. Now, while Ghani is positioning himself for an electoral victory, it isn’t clear that the elections will even take place. The results of parliamentary polls held six months ago have yet to be finalised.

Ghani appointed loyalists to lead the so-called Independent Election Commission. The elections were plagued by ballot stuffing and problems with biometric verification. The Ghani administration neither has the intent nor the capability to conduct credible presidential elections. If the elections take place, Ghani would likely remain as president until December, given that the polls would probably go to a second round. But the twice-delayed presidential election could be delayed again until the next spring.

Allowing Ashraf Ghani to remain as president through the elections will most likely amount to an effective indefinite extension of his rule.

This will undoubtedly prove to be controversial, triggering a political crisis in Afghanistan akin to the one the country witnessed in 2014, subsuming the intra-Afghan peace process. A caretaker government — led by a respected Afghan social or political figured, staffed by ministers chosen by consensus — would give Kabul the legitimacy and time to enact electoral reforms, conduct credible polls, and push forward an all-Afghan dialogue process with the Taliban.