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January 25, 2015



Learning democracy from Afghanistan

It isn’t easy running a coalition government as President Dr Ashraf Ghani has found out since assuming power on September 29, 2014. His unity government with Dr Abdullah, who became the chief executive officer when a new post equivalent to prime minister was created for him, has been facing a crisis to cobble together a cabinet with 50 percent representation from the two sides. The run-up to the nomination process has been chaotic and getting the cabinet in place and functional has been frustrating.
Nobody should have expected that it would be a smooth affair when US Secretary of State John Kerry helped broker an agreement for formation of the unity government to unlock the stalemate resulting from the inconclusive and controversial presidential election. Dr Abdullah had refused to accept defeat as he claimed the polls were rigged in Ghani’s favour.
Ghani could only become the president if he stopped insisting on being the winner and giving half the share of the coalition government to Abdullah. Their power-sharing agreement could be described as the beginning of the creation of a parliamentary form of government in a federalised Afghanistan as is being demanded by the non-Pakhtun ethnic minorities from the northern provinces. However, that is another issue and is far from settled due to the still diverse opinions being voiced in multi-ethnic Afghanistan.
It shouldn’t have surprised anyone that it took Ghani and Abdullah 105 days to agree on the composition of the 25-member cabinet. Ghani, an academic and proponent of good governance, had reportedly set up tough parameters such as merit, requisite qualification and experience and clean past for the candidates for the cabinet. He wanted a break from the past when the warlords took turns to rule as ministers, advisers and governors after having earlier ruled their fiefdoms by force. However, he couldn’t ensure that all those nominated for inclusion in the cabinet would pass this test.

agreed to go along with Ghani in proposing a largely merit-based cabinet even though it was difficult for him to deny berths to many allies who were expecting to be rewarded for supporting him in the presidential election. To a lesser extent, Ghani faced the same predicament. He could have risked his alliance with Abdullah if he had vetoed the latter’s choice for ministerial positions.
Due to political compulsions and aware of the high expectations of the people, they finally came up with a cabinet of 25 ministers, including three women, and also the heads of Afghanistan’s premier intelligence agency, National Directorate of Security (NDS) and Da Afghanistan Bank. The absence of former mujahideen commanders in the cabinet was noteworthy and led to criticism by the warlords, but such a move was needed to begin a new era in which those with blood on their hands won’t be exercising too much power.
However, Ghani had to face embarrassment despite taking so much time in naming the cabinet and insisting on merit in the selection process because the name of his choice for the minister of agriculture, Mohammad Yaqoob Haideri, was found on Interpol’s most wanted list for his involvement in large-scale tax evasion in Estonia. It was also embarrassing that his finance minister-designate, Ghulam Jeelani Popal, declined to take up the job due to ‘personal reasons’ that were interpreted differently by MPs and the media. Abdullah’s choice for the minister of water and power, Mahmoud Saikal, who some years ago had served as deputy foreign minister, also dropped out and had to be replaced.
Another serious problem was the rejection of seven ministers-designate by the Woleai Jirga (National Assembly) for holding dual citizenship. Under Afghanistan’s constitution, those with dual citizenship cannot become president or hold cabinet and other high positions. Among those rejected by the increasingly assertive assembly were foreign minister Salahuddin Rabbani, the son of the late president Burhanuddin Rabbani, and interior Noorul Haq Uloomi, a former communist general and member of parliament. Both were nominated by Abdullah.
The rejection of his two key nominees prompted Abdullah to enter into talks with influential members of the assembly to seek their support. Nominating new ministers and getting them to win vote of confidence from the assembly is a long and tiring process as Karzai experienced during his long rule.
Despite being an older democracy, Pakistan could learn a thing or two from Afghanistan’s nascent democratic order and constitutional provisions. Every nominee for the Afghan cabinet has to individually seek the vote of confidence from the members of lower house of parliament by presenting his or her ideas for improving the working of their assigned ministry and answering questions posed by the parliamentarians. The profile of the minister-designate is read out in the assembly and achievements, if any, are highlighted.
Several nominees for cabinet proposed by former president Hamid Karzai were rejected by the assembly in the past and new ones had to be introduced in their place. Though a few ministers, including finance minister Dr Hazrat Omar Zakhilwal, at the time alleged that some of the MPs sought favours or tried to blackmail the government to accept their demands, the provision to seek vote of trust from the assembly is useful in keeping a check on the members of the cabinet and making them accountable.
Islamabad has been keeping a close eye on the happenings in Kabul as whatever happens in Afghanistan has a fallout on Pakistan, and vice-versa.
The smooth running of the unity government will help stabilise Afghanistan and impact positively on Pakistan. It will also enable the two countries to interact confidently with each other and reach an understanding that would be predictable and could help reduce mutual distrust. Afghan and Pakistani civil and military officials have met often in recent months, particularly after the terrorist attack on the Army Public School and College, Peshawar and given hopeful statements about improved relations between the two countries. However, the gestures of goodwill and the promise not to allow the use of their soil against each other needs to be translated into practical steps to achieve this objective.
The unannounced ceasefire between the Afghan and Pakistani government functionaries to refrain from making accusations against one another has been holding since the exit of former president Hamid Karzai in September last year. There has been no loud criticism of each other and no blame-game. There were occasions and provocations when both sides could have started criticising each other again, but good sense prevailed and patience was shown in an effort not to pollute the atmosphere.
For example, Afghanistan’s top spymaster General Rahmatullah Nabeel during his recent speech in the National Assembly while seeking the vote of trust didn’t name Pakistan or any other country when he claimed that “some countries are using terror as a policy to reach their targets.”
Nabeel, who was originally Karzai’s choice and has been retained as the NDS head by President Ghani, maintained that 34 political and religious parties on the directives of spy agencies of the neighbouring countries were directly involved in recruiting youth for fighting in Afghanistan under different names. He warned that the neighbouring countries would also burn in the fire they were choking in case they continued to destabilise Afghanistan. His words left no doubt that he was referring to Pakistan, and perhaps also to Iran, without putting out names but leaving nothing to imagination.
Karzai used the same language to publicly lambast Pakistan when he was in power and he hasn’t changed a bit after the end of his 13-year long rule as his recent pronouncements showed. However, Ghani is pursuing the path of reconciliation with Pakistan instead of provoking it despite the advice of Karzai and many other Afghans not to trust Islamabad. He will need understanding and backing by Pakistan in order to prove his critics wrong.
The writer is resident editor of The News in Peshawar.
Email: [email protected]