Facing an aid cut and coronavirus, Afghanistan has two presidents and no plan

The US is harshly punishing Kabul for its failure to unite, but responsibility lies squarely with Afghan politicians

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In yet another drastic change in its Afghanistan policy, the US has announced that it would immediately cut $1 billion in aid to Afghanistan's central government.

The withdrawal of aid is punishment for Kabul's failure to present a united front in an ongoing US-brokered effort to commence peace talks with the Taliban, the Islamist militant group that imposed a reign of terror across most of Afghanistan throughout the 1990s. It came after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made a surprise visit by to Kabul in an attempt to bring bickering politicians together – but failed to do so.

The division in the Afghan capital is the result of a stand-off between Ashraf Ghani, the country’s incumbent president, and his challenger in the last presidential election, Dr Abdullah Abdullah. Although the results of the election were formally released five weeks ago, after five months of delay, the dispute continues.

FILE PHOTO: Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani (L) and Afghanistan's Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah (R) participate in a family photo at the NATO Summit in Warsaw, Poland July 8, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/File Photo
Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani, left, and arch political rival Abdullah Abdullah are both vying to the run the country at the moment. Reuters

Both men have claimed victory. Both men held competing inaugurations. Both men refuse to come to an agreement. Dr Abdullah has even gone so far as to establish a parallel government in a makeshift "presidential palace" next door to that of Mr Ghani.

In a televised address, Mr Ghani stated that he had met with Dr Abdullah and extended an offer of a "central role in the peace process and positions in the cabinet to his allies". Dr Abdullah rejected that offer, and reportedly wants a constitutional amendment to create (for himself, in this instance) the position of prime minister. This is unacceptable to the President.

Few Afghans but Mr Ghani and Dr Abdullah, it seems, have the privilege of distancing themselves from one another.

As a result, there is no definitive authority in the presidential palace to undertake the task of reaching a political settlement with the Taliban. Without such an agreement, there is no easy way for the US to draw down its own forces in Afghanistan, as they are there to secure the country against a unilateral Taliban military victory.

This military victory becomes all the more likely if the Afghan National Army’s financial support from the US, which amounts to around $4bn annually, is dramatically reduced.

After Mr Pompeo's announcement, General Austen Miller, who is at the helm of the US military presence in Afghanistan, had a video conference with Afghan security leaders, in which he attempted to calm their nerves and urge them to remain neutral in the ongoing political games between Kabul and Washington. But most soldiers will only read the news through its end result: the vanishing of a significant portion of their forces' resources.

In reality, Washington’s decision will cost Afghanistan more than $1bn. The ripple effect – by way of declining morale in the country's security forces, along with the strain of its limited budget resources getting stretched ever thinner – will far outstrip the face value of the loss in aid.

Trash is a serious problem in Kabul, with the city's municipality saying that between 2,500-2,800 metric tonnes of garbage are produced every day.
Kabul is home to a large number of slums, set atop the city's hills. AP

Life in Afghanistan, for most of its population, is already difficult. With the spread of the coronavirus pandemic into the country, it is about to become even more so.

Few Afghans but Mr Ghani and Dr Abdullah, it seems, have the privilege of distancing themselves from one another. Five years ago, the World Bank compiled data indicating that two thirds of Afghans live in slums. Another report indicated that around 86 per cent of the country’s urban housing stock could be classified as slums.

In Kabul, these consist of joined-up, mud-brick houses huddled around large hills. Electricity and running water, 18 years after international reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan began, are scarce resources in these areas. Extended family and neighbours rely on one another to get access to these bare necessities. Close contact and cooperation are the key to survival.

epa08316926 Afghan security officials stand guard at Pak-Afghan border in Islam Qala, in Herat, Afghanistan, 22 March 2020 (issued 24 March 2020). Reports state the number of cases infected with coronavirus in Afghanistan increased to 34.  EPA/JALIL REZAYEE
Afghan soldiers stand guard at the Iranian-Afghan border in Islam Qala, in Herat, Afghanistan, on March 22, 2020. EPA

The problem is compounded by the expulsion, over the last two months, of tens of thousands of Afghan refugees from Iran, where the coronavirus has overrun the already-enfeebled healthcare system. As these refugees return home across the Afghan-Iranian border, Afghan health officials have attempted, in vain, to screen them for infection. On Tuesday alone, authorities in Herat, a province of Afghanistan that neighbours Iran, registered 32 new coronavirus cases.

In the wake of that news, Afghanistan’s health minister, Ferozuddin Feroz, told reporters that he is expecting 80 per cent of Afghans – around 25 million people – to contract the virus during the ongoing global pandemic. Of these, an estimated 110,000 will die. This is a greater figure than the number of civilians killed in the war in Afghanistan, by any party, in the past 10 years.

As the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, noted this week: “The fury of the virus illustrates the folly of war.”

Mr Ghani has attempted to put a positive spin on the situation. In his televised address, he endeavoured to reassure the public – those with access to televisions – that the American cut in aid would not hit any “key sectors”. It is difficult to see how this can be the case, given the size of the amount withheld – equivalent to five per cent of Afghanistan’s GDP.

Mr Ghani’s position is in many ways understandable. He wants to send a message to Dr Abdullah that the latter cannot hold the entire system hostage for his own political benefit.

The tragedy, however, is that he clearly can. Rather than use its influence to force Dr Abdullah to accept defeat, the US is adopting a policy of punishing all sides.

Should Dr Abdullah remain obstinate in his position, a change to the country’s foundational document may prove to be the only way forward.

epa08316922 People wait to cross into Afghanistan from Iran at the border cross of Islam Qala between Afganistan and Iran, in Herat, Afghanistan, 22 March 2020 (issued 24 March 2020). Reports state the number of cases infected with coronavirus in Afghanistan increased to 34.  EPA/JALIL REZAYEE
People wait to cross into Afghanistan from Iran at the border cross of Islam Qala between Afghanistan and Iran, in Herat, Afghanistan. EPA

The Afghan constitution that Mr Ghani so vigorously claims to defend outlines a democratic process for the country. But as I previously explained in these pages, the election data reveals that neither Mr Ghani nor Dr Abdullah could muster more than a million votes in a country with 10 million registered voters. This is not democratic empowerment. The reality is that neither of the men got to where he is because of the principles enshrined in the constitution.

While part of the function of constitutions is to outline a process for achieving power, the thrust of such documents is to define what power means and where responsibility lies. In Afghanistan’s case, the responsibility for the safety and well-being of Afghans lies squarely with Afghan leaders – not with Americans in Washington. Whatever constitutional amendments do or do not manifest, that element of the document can never change.

The horrors to come in Afghanistan require both Mr Ghani and Dr Abdullah to embody the qualities of a president, regardless of who holds the title.

In Mr Ghani's case, that means doing whatever needs to be done to secure a complete end to violence and prepare the country for a health emergency. In Dr Abdullah's case, the most presidential thing he can do is to accept that he is not, in fact, the president, nor does Afghanistan at this moment in time need him to be.

Sulaiman Hakemy is deputy comment editor at The National