Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah at a press conference in Kabul on September 30, 2019. His rival Ashraf Ghani has been declared the winner. Photo: AFP / Sajjad Hussain

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.

In a recent case, after a decision by the US government to cancel a quarter of its financial aid to the Afghan government in retaliation to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s failed mediation to end the post-election dispute between Abdullah and Ghani, Ghani spoke of adopting “austerity measures” to offset the fiscal gap.

His previous career in the World Bank might be a clue to this policy choice. But it seems around the bend for a poor country already in need of substantial external aid, where austerity can mean demanding a starved public sector, the largest employer in the economy, to make do with less than it has in the way of limited fiscal leeway and to dismiss thousands of workers despite crippling poverty and youth unemployment.

Ghani may not be able to implement it, or the US government may eventually retract its financial-aid cutback. But mere mention of fiscal austerity as a suitable policy for impoverished Afghanistan shows that the universe Ghani inhabits can only be a parallel one, when even stalwart proponents of the policy elsewhere no longer stand by it because of the sharp economic downturn globally caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

According to another media report that one might mistake for a satirical piece at first glance, Ghani has tasked a government development agency to create 40,000 jobs in a month to fight the economic effects of the coronavirus. He might as well have ordered the agency to launch a satellite into the space.

Outlandish policy moves by Ghani are not unusual – his promise to build 500,000 residential units in his 2014 presidential campaign, for instance, which could never be built and never have been – but his recent decisions are hardly reassuring for a country that needs a leadership at least consistent with sound thinking. Raising expectations beyond available means might be as damaging to Afghanistan as the ongoing militant insurgency.

All this is happening at a time when Afghanistan’s glaring unpreparedness to withstand the Covid-19 pandemic is quickly shaping up as a public health catastrophe. The country sits next to Iran, one of the hardest hit by the pandemic in the world, with a long, porous border, making it a particularly vulnerable case among poor countries with inadequate health infrastructure.

Iran hosts at least a million Afghan migrants who are returning home in droves. According to International Organization for Migration (IOM) figures, 100,000 Afghan migrants returned home from Iran last month alone, and they were likely the first to have brought the virus to Afghanistan. The first cases showed up in Herat province, which is the main border point for humans and goods between Iran and Afghanistan.

The pandemic is fast becoming a serious drain on the economy. The non-subsistence economy in Afghanistan is largely made up of informal retail trade that requires crowded places to operate in. Partly because of a government-enforced lockdown and partly because of people’s fear of the virus that keeps them homebound, the livelihood stream for the country’s population in bigger cities has in effect ceased.

Government assistance remains the only option for those who have lost their livelihood to dissuade them from quarantine non-compliance out of hunger-induced desperation. Even if they defy the quarantine, they’re not likely to have many clients braving it into the open-air markets. Handling this challenge and the other ones in Afghanistan crucially depends on how and when the country’s politics is unified under a new government.  

The second option  

Failure to realize that could mean the second and less optimistic of the two scenarios. It could lead to partial or full-blown disintegration into pockets of localized power without a relevant central government in the country – a repeat of the political misrule and violence of the early 1990s but with much deadlier intensity due to its potentially overt ethnic character this time.

The first indications pointing toward this scenario were when Abdullah took the presidential oath parallel to Ghani. The country’s leadership is already split between two political offices. This divide plays itself out more significantly within an ethnically fragmented population.

Abdullah has the support of significant sections of Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras, three of the four largest ethnic minorities. Ghani has the overwhelming support of Pashtuns but also some Tajiks and Hazaras, who might reassess their alignment if political chaos breaks out.

Ethnic affiliation was observed in the pattern of votes for both candidates and is currently seen in the composition of the leadership of both camps. Ghani and Abdullah, both of whom represent symptoms of a brewing ethnic storm, themselves might get swept aside by its first winds and may not be capable in its aftermath to wield their influence to sway it toward pacification.

Foreign countries, near and far, have also picked their favorites between the two camps. Iran and Russia have made overt signs of their disagreement with an only-Ghani leadership, while the US, China, the European Union and India have offered their blessings to Ghani.

Afghanistan’s Yemenization or a Libya-style disintegration may seem far-fetched, but if the past two months are any indication in the world of politics, it is that taking any form of stable constancy too seriously is dangerously self-delusional. What we can reasonably anticipate are the worst-case scenarios, and only devise ways to prevent them from occurring. 

The Taliban factor

The second scenario is conditional on whether Ghani and Abdullah fail to create a coalition administration at a time when Afghanistan’s biggest partner, the US, is losing patience and wants an exit, and the Taliban may be left with no other option than pursuing their violent insurgency.

The group is not immune to the pandemic’s effects, however, which raises the likelihood of a stalemate by canceling out an upper hand to any one side in the war. Besides potential virus transmission among their militants that could weaken their ranks, the Taliban are traditionally dependent on support from Pakistani military intelligence (Inter-Services Intelligence or ISI) and rely on illicit narcotics trade for vital funds.

As with everything in the world these days, both of these have been seriously disrupted by the pandemic. The Pakistani military is at the forefront of fighting a potentially wider outbreak of the coronavirus, and illicit trade has also seen severe disruptions, from production to transport and sales, due to the economic shutdowns related to the pandemic at the global level.

Nonetheless, the Taliban’s fighters are unlikely to abandon the battlefield merely out of fear of the virus. In the context of a life-threatening pandemic, reduced US assistance and an unrepresentative government, the first victims of a likely fall in morale will be the salaried Afghan Army soldiers, for whom saving dear life might take precedence over patriotic duty.

This leaves open the possibility of military advances by a weakened yet intrepid Taliban organization that would exacerbate feelings of insecurity among ethnic Hazaras, Uzbeks and Tajiks who, in the absence of a coalition government, will have fewer reasons to count on Ghani’s government for defense.

Such a scenario would likely lead to a deeper and irreversible fragmentation of Afghan society, the first cracks of which would appear in what remains of the Afghan Army and police forces along ethnic lines in a situation where group survival will become the pre-eminent concern. Few will bother with who sits in the Presidential Palace in Kabul in such a state because it will no longer hold much relevance.

Kambaiz Rafi is a PhD candidate in political economy at University College London.