Afghanistan: Hope In Uncertain Times – Analysis


By Chayanika Saxena*

Just the day before three massive terror strikes ripped through the city of Kabul, the seat of central power of Afghanistan, I had the chance of interacting with the Member of Parliament from the Badakhshan province, Fawzia Koofi, on the future of politics in Afghanistan. Brimming with hope amid massive insecurity, she acknowledged that a long journey lay ahead of them as a nation in-the-making.

‘Unpredictable’ is a word that features constantly in the discourses on Afghanistan whichever pedestal they may be spoken from. Both intellectual and casual discussions on this nation-in-the-making are rife with a sense of exasperation not only over the deadly fate that many meet within the country on a constant basis, but also over the sheer unpredictability of the course it will run. The ‘moments of peace’ that intersperse the long periods of conflict are, in fact those eerie silences that speak their own language; telling the tales of an uncertain life which the general masses of Afghanistan have resigned to. The constant shadow of war and insecurity have anaesthetized them to the events that appear shocking to us in our countries, where if nothing else, but such terror strikes continue to be events extraordinaire.

The ordinariness that such terrorizing events have assumed became a clarion call for the National Unity Government to find a solution to a rather predictable pattern of an unpredictable life in Afghanistan; or, so it is believed. One year into office (almost), the ‘political solution to an internecine struggle’ (that the NUG was hoped to be) demands evaluation of where it has come till now. The views, as always, are split between the idealists and the pragmatists. There are those who were expecting an instantaneous transcendence into a state of peace with the rise of a ‘democratically elected’ government, and are thus disappointed with the present state of affairs. And, then there are those who knew the path to peace will be a long one and are hopeful that there will be change later, if not sooner. It is to the latter kind that this cautiously optimistic Member of Parliament, Ms. Koofi, belongs to.

Having faced the hardest of circumstances, including many bids on her life from the very day on which she was born; Koofi has seen the rough and tumble of life from the closest quarters. Being in power since the inception of the parliament in the 21st century Afghanistan, she is currently in her second-term in the Wolesi Jirga (House of the People, or the Lower House) and is hopeful of pulling a hat trick in the elections to the parliament that are due the next year. In a conversation with her over the future course of politics in Afghanistan, she resounded pride for her country in her fiercely headstrong demeanor which has been her trademark, but was equally cautious not to let this gloss over the shortcomings that are apparent in every sphere of Afghanistan’s life.

The National Unity Government

Calling the sharing of power between the two Afghan leaders, Mohammed Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah as a ‘solution’ rather than a ‘compromise’, Koofi observed that the decision to have the power shared between the two contenders was the only way available to assuage the two major ethnic communities in the country — Pashtuns and Tajiks. But, is all well with the arrangement? Well, not really.

There exists, as the MP notes, a major difference in how the two leaders go about conducting their respective businesses and which has a major impact on the overall functioning of the government. While President Ghani has a penchant for making bold moves in both domestic and international circles, the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Abdullah Abdullah is believed to maintain a rather measured and moderate style of doing politics. A micro-manager is what Koofi believes the current president is as he seems to take stock in an equivocal fashion of the smallest to the biggest things that fall under his purview. Whereas Abdullah, despite the powers vested in him, does not appear to be making the most of it.

Amendment to the Constitution to carve an official position of the prime minister as a permanent replacement to the temporary seat of the CEO; reforms in areas pertaining to elections in the country such as the Electoral Law and the Electoral Commission, and the appointments of political and bureaucratic functionaries were flagged by the MP as the other sticky issues that dampen the prospects of success for the NUG.

Ethnic Affiliations Continue to Run Deep

Comparable to India in terms of its sheer ethnic, linguistic and cultural diversity, affiliations to communities in Afghanistan continue to play a major role in determining the political make-up of the country. From the smallest of administrative portfolios to even the government in Kabul, ethnic solidarities are seen assuming priority, and which as the MP observed, come to hamper the efforts of creating a national consciousness.

But, while ethnicity becomes a probable reason for tension and acrimony, sectarian conflict in Afghanistan, the MP believes is not that common. The feuds between communities often erupt out of a combination of ethnic and economic tensions and hardly assume a sectarian color.

Talking about the internal make-up of the communities, Koofi highlighted that the three major ethnic communities in Afghanistan — which are the Pashtuns, Tajiks, and Hazaras — exhibit differences in how they lead their social, cultural, political and economic lives. While the Pashtuns, for having being in power for more than 200 years now, are in obvious favor of maintaining the status-quo, and as a result are stringent about how they deal with these aspects of their life, the Tajiks and Hazaras on the other hand are more moderate. Having been the bureaucratic and administrative backbone of the Pashtun-led empires for an equivalent period of time, their sedentary lives and greater degree of literacy have made them moderate in their dispensation towards politics in particular. In fact, as Koofi claimed, it is hard to divide the Dari-speaking Tajiks along axis of divisions — be it region, or other intra-ethnic fault-lines.

For a variety of political, economic and social reasons, Hazaras compared to the other two communities have not had significant experience of power in Afghanistan. While their political currency is on the rise today, this community, as the MP believes has been the most progressive among the major ethnic lots in the country.

Peace Process

A peace process that has almost got the whole world, particularly the South Asian region anxious, is definitely a tight-rope walk. With all the ‘revelations’ that have been made in the last few weeks and the severe intensity of the spring offensive of the Taliban forming the backdrop, the journey to rapprochement and reconciliation will be a long drawn one. Added to it, the credibility of Pakistan as a committed stakeholder in the process appears to be questionable to the domestic constituencies within Afghanistan. But, in spite of these dampeners, Ms. Koofi, as a cautious optimist believes that the process of peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan continues to remain a priority and that there is no going back on it.

A Slip in Rank for India on Afghanistan’s Priority List?

An increasing sense of apprehension, if not disaffection with Afghanistan’s revised international and regional priorities, is what is felt in the diplomatic circles in India. The recent parleys with the civilian and military capitals of Pakistan, combined with the increasing Chinese interest and involvement in the peace process have certainly created speculation in the minds of the Indian audience about a possible sidelining of this South Asian giant. But, ‘fear not’ is what Ms. Koofi had to say to such questions that spoke of India’s increasing concerns vis-à-vis Afghanistan’s re-oriented foreign policy.

While acknowledging a change in the direction of Afghanistan’s foreign policy — a move that she claims is the rightful prerogative of every sovereign nation —Koofi was quick in assuaging a visibly concerned India. Speaking of the now staple-feed of a statement on the civilizational connect between India and Afghanistan, Koofi believes the cultural bridges between these two countries, are very hard to forget. The important role played by India in the reconstruction of Afghanistan, especially through the infrastructural, educational and capacity-building projects it has financed, have reinforced the bond of trust between the countries. And in fact, such is the intensity of camaraderie and faith between the two countries that she claimed that for many Afghans, including the CEO of the country, India has become a second home.

A case in point which Koofi brought to light to prove the vast cultural dividend that India has managed to reap in Afghanistan was the uproar that was caused post the signing of the intelligence-sharing agreement between the National Directorate of Security (Afghanistan) and the Inter-Services Intelligence (Pakistan). Also, the continuous support of the Indian government in providing opportunities for higher education to the Afghans is a service which her nation, she said, was thankful to India for.

Carving Space for Women in Politics

Afghanistan is not an exception to a world order that continues to be biased against women, said the MP who has herself experienced the worst forms of repression. Disowned at her own home and then the brutality of Taliban have surely contributed to her will to fight for women’s rights in the country. But in doing so Koofi is also careful to point out that the years under Taliban do not define Afghanistan — her country is certainly more than that. Having given women the right to vote in 1919, many reforms had touched the lives of women before the country descended into chaos with the invasion by the Soviet Union. While brutality against women continues, with some statistics going on to describe Afghanistan as ‘the worst place to be a woman’, steps towards ensuring greater equality in the country are also being taken — a case in point being the nomination of Anisa Rasooli to the Supreme Court’s High Council.

Future of Afghan Politics

Ms. Koofi’s cautious optimism about the future of Afghanistan and its political set-up speaks of the hope she has for the country and the problems that have the potential to crush it. A growing class of literate, young Afghans is what the MP counts as a blessing for the country, while the continuous presence of extremist elements, meddlesome neighbors and a declining economy, amount to speed-breakers in this journey.

Koofi was equally careful to stress that the internal troubles of Afghanistan have been a creation of international and regional politics, and that a permanent solution to them will require a committed international and regional participation. Anything short of it will once again expose Afghanistan and through it, the whole of South Asia, to the kind of threats that will be more severe than ever. And, as the MP wrapped the conversation, she was particular to reiterate that it is in the interest of South Asia and the whole world to not to leave Afghanistan’s side so long as a comprehensive, sustainable reconciliation is not achieved.

*Chayanika Saxena is a Research Associate at the Society for Policy Studies and will be conducting her Doctoral Research on State-building in Afghanistan. She can be reached at [email protected]

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