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What’s next for Afghanistan amid Covid, political logjam

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It makes for a gripping intellectual exercise to study a country in the throes of a pivotal change that throws it off its familiar path. The study of such turnabout moments in Afghanistan, however, is not as promising, because of their sheer frequency.

The country in at least five of the past decades has kept shifting between deceptive stability and outbursts of chaos. The choice between worse and worst. At present, it is moving toward another pivotal threshold. Some signs point toward two likely scenarios that are dependent on political decisions in the coming days and weeks.

The first consists of creating a government led jointly by Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani, the two leading candidates in last September’s presidential elections in which each claimed victory, to end the standoff between them. As a way out, continuation of the former National Unity Government (NUG), the administration in power between 2015 and 2020 and led jointly by Ghani and Abdullah, may be the least thorny option, potentially with some adjustment of official titles.

Abdullah, who was chief executive of the NUG – that is, de facto prime minister but without the actual title or recognition in the country’s constitution – might assume a new role that is as visible to public view as his previous post but equally as incapable to exert tangible political control compared with the more powerful presidential post.

His presence in the government leadership in some capacity is, in any case, necessary for this scenario to work, a step also made imperative by the fact that Afghanistan’s highly centralized presidential system hands over all power to the winning candidate – who in the case of the September 2019 elections was formally Ashraf Ghani.

A government run by Ghani alone – who has already resumed his post as president despite doubts among his opponents concerning his victory in an election that saw less than a quarter of eligible voters participating – is unlikely to garner widespread support. He was declared the winner by an electoral body whose members he appointed, and after a vote recount that openly violated the country’s election regulations.

Participation in the government by all social groups is needed, if not for its significance for Afghanistan’s faltering Western-backed political system, but to achieve a negotiated settlement with the Taliban – something the group’s spokesman also stressed in a recent audio interview with BBC Persian TV.  

Joint leadership in the government might also be needed on a less visible but more ominous ground. A few recent decisions by Ghani have betrayed clouded perceptions of the Afghan government’s capabilities, and a relatively reasonably balancer might be needed to keep it in check.



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