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Afghan Defense Minister Nominee Rejection Signals Problems

FILE - Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, center, former President Hamid Karzai, left, and Afghan chief executive Abdullah Abdullah, right, attend during a ceremony marking the first anniversary of the death of Former Afghan Vice President Marshal Mohammed Qa
FILE - Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, center, former President Hamid Karzai, left, and Afghan chief executive Abdullah Abdullah, right, attend during a ceremony marking the first anniversary of the death of Former Afghan Vice President Marshal Mohammed Qa

Ten months into its tenure, and deep into one of the bloodiest fighting seasons in the 15-year war with the Taliban, the Afghan parliament’s failure to endorse a defense minister reflects deeper political turmoil that analysts say threatens government stability.

Massoum Stanekzai was the third nominee who was unable to secure enough votes in the parliament to secure the post. President Ashraf Ghani’s first nominee was similarly rejected by parliament while the second withdrew his nomination when videos of him making ethnically controversial comments surfaced on social media.

At best, the failure to confirm a defense chief is a symptom of an administration that is out of sync with the political reality on the ground, according to Ahmed Rashid, author of several books on Afghanistan. At worst it shows a divided administration facing serious opposition in parliament, as well as a former president who is trying to undermine the whole political system.

Checkered past

Stanekzai was a controversial figure. Rashid said he was not very well liked by the army and the top generals may have lobbied in the parliament against him.

And even though he was nominated by a consensus between the president and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, Haroun Mir, a political analyst based in Kabul said several important political figures had expressed concern about him. He was also controversial due to his role in the high peace council where he was a leading figure.

“The peace project for the last ten years that he was behind was a total failure,” said Ahmad Wali Massoud, a former Afghan ambassador to the United Kingdom and brother of slain Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud.

When former president and the then-head of High Peace Council Burhanuddin Rabbani was assassinated, some, including Rabbani’s party Jamiat e Islami, accused Stanekzai of having a hand in it.

His credibility suffered further once Ghani appointed him as an acting defense minister ahead of his nomination for the post. Although he did not serve in the post long enough to gauge his performance, he was still blamed for the worsening security situation. An attack on the Afghan parliament and another one on Jalrezi, a district close to Kabul, right before the vote, damaged his reputation.

“We knew from the beginning that Mr. Stanekzai will face serious challenges in the Afghan parliament,” according to Mir.

Not everyone agreed with this view. Shahmahmood Miakhel, the Kabul based country head of the United States Institute for Peace, thought Stanekzai was the “right fit for the job.”

He knew the military structure and the insurgent groups, Miakhel said. He had also served as the deputy head of Disarmament, Demobilization, and Re-integration program that was started in 2003 to reintegrate former soldiers of the Afghan National Force into the mainstream.

At the end of the day, however, President Ghani should have weighed his options better rather than risking a rejection a third time, according to Rashid.

Can unity government hold?

The rejection, however, is also indicative of other problems plaguing the Afghan Unity Government, which was formed in early 2015 as part of a U.S.-brokered deal following last year’s disputed elections. Under the power-sharing plan, Ashraf Ghani and his former rival Abdullah Abdullah agreed to work together, but their collaboration could be fraying.

“It’s not the same government as it was, let’s say, six months ago,” according to Massoud, adding that they have been “stuck in their own quarrels” rather than taking on the bigger issues of war and peace, and safeguarding the people.

Others, like Rashid, agreed with this analysis. “We are seeing a real breakdown, I think, in the relationship between Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani,” he said.

The two sides have yet to agree on a commission to reform the country’s electoral system, one of the highest priorities for the Unity Government at the time it was established.

The breakdown comes at a time when President Ashraf Ghani faces an increasingly hostile parliament, with what some say is an “anti-Ghani lobby” that rejects anything he proposes.

This government inherited a lot of problems. One of those problems, Miakhel of USIP said, was the members of parliament themselves, many of whom he says had a “selfish agenda.”

The political turmoil is leading to growing political pessimism. Some speculate that the unity government might topple — even though Afghanistan offers no constitutional alternative.

“A military coup is out of the question because of the structure of our military forces,” according to Mir.

So if the government collapses, the only way out may be a traditional Loya Jirga, which is how Afghans tackle some of their most important national issues. The Jirga constitutes of important national leaders, tribal elders, and members of civil society.

Questioning karzai’s role

Meanwhile, some in Afghanistan allege that former president Hamid Karzai has been undermining Ghani behind the scenes.

Karzai has taken on the role of the de-facto opposition leader, even though he is not in the parliament and cannot run for president again due to constitutional term limits.

Massoud believes that Karzai may be vying for the government to fail in the hopes that a traditional Loya Jirga will call on him to take over the leadership.

He is not the only one suspicious of Karzai’s intentions.

“In case of serious national crisis, he would be the only leader who could assemble all these political groups, people, because he is the only national leader. No one else has the stature…inside and outside the country,” Mir said.

This political turmoil is happening while the international troops are gearing up to leave Afghanistan and the Taliban have inflicted one of the bloodiest fighting seasons on the country.

“The Taliban are able to attack in one place, divert the troops to that place and then retreat and attack in another place,” according to Ahmed Rashid.

Without a defense minister coordinating the response, “ what we’re seeing is a lot of petty rivalries being carried out within the military high command itself,” he added.

Stanekzai is still at the helm while the government searches for another nominee, but his temporary position deprives him of the authority to bring together a comprehensive strategy to deal with the Taliban offensive.

While some like Miakhel think the security strategy is the purview of the national security council chaired by the president, and not having a defense minister was “not a big disaster,” others feel it could lead to further problems.

One of the fears is that the lack of a comprehensive political reform and security strategy may lead to flight of capital from the country, leading to further economic instability.

Despite the violent attacks, the Taliban have not been able to hold any large swathes of territory. The districts they captured were eventually taken back by the Afghan forces. Miakhel thinks if the Afghan army can hold territory for the summer, the situation will improve. Ideally, the Taliban would realize their limitations and be more conducive to peace talks.