Afghan Government on Shaky Ground Ahead of Elections

Key Takeaway: Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani is facing a powerful, cross-ethnic opposition bloc that could destabilize and ultimately collapse the Afghan government. The growing prospect of political instability ahead of key elections threatens U.S. objectives defined by President Donald Trump and his administration. These objectives include defeating Salafi-jihadists and facilitating a negotiated political settlement to the war in Afghanistan.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani faces an unprecedented cross-ethnic challenge threatening political stability in Afghanistan. The Coalition for the Salvation of Afghanistan (CSA) – a powerful opposition alliance – created the Grand National Coalition of Afghanistan on July 26. The CSA is led by key powerbrokers including recently returned First Vice President General Abdul Rashid Dostum, former Balkh Province Governor Mohammad Atta Noor, Deputy Chief Executive Officer Mohammad Mohaqiq, and Foreign Minister Salahuddin Rabbani. The Grand National Coalition brings together Afghanistan’s main ethnic minorities – Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara – with leaders from the ethnic majority Pashtun. The coalition’s alignment against Ghani could destabilize – if not topple – the current Afghan government and undermine U.S. strategy in Afghanistan.

The Grand National Coalition could conceivably defeat Ghani in the 2019 Afghan Presidential Election. The CSA had already united key political opponents of Ghani. The Grand National Coalition further expands its power. It incorporates most senior leaders from Atta’s Jamiat-e Islami (Islamic Society) – one of the most powerful but fractious political parties in Afghanistan. Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai also announced his support for the Grand National Coalition, which already included several of his political affiliates, on July 27. The combination of unified support from Jamiat-e Islami and the widespread patronage networks and influence that Karzai wields could prove decisive if organized behind a single opponent to Ghani in 2019.  

The Grand National Coalition could alternatively resort to extra-constitutional measures to remove Ghani. Grand National Coalition leaders have repeatedly raised allegations of widespread election fraud. Several CSA leaders previously demanded the invalidation of voter registration records for the upcoming 2018 Afghan Parliamentary Elections. Atta warned that election fraud could prompt the installation of a Transitional Government. The Grand National Coalition may use these complaints as a pretext to call a traditional (and extralegal) Loya Jirga in an attempt to unseat Ghani. Ghani reportedly views this threat as legitimate and fears that Karzai could “manipulate the forum to undermine” the government. This maneuver would likely further destabilize politics in Kabul and paralyze the Afghan government.

The Grand National Coalition could destabilize the Afghan government and thereby threaten key U.S. interests, including the fight against Salafi-jihadist groups and efforts to end the broader war. The Grand National Coalition remains a divided alliance of historic rivals without a unified vision for Afghanistan’s future. It will likely devolve into disunity even if it successfully deposes Ghani. Afghanistan thus faces an unpredictable election season that could risk the return of civil war similar to the contested 2014 Afghan Presidential Elections. The Taliban and the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) will exploit any political dysfunction to expand their territorial control. Continuing instability will increase the risk of Salafi-jihadist groups finding safe haven in Afghanistan. The Taliban are also unlikely to pursue any meaningful negotiations with a fragmented Afghan government. President Donald Trump’s Administration has committed the U.S. to facilitating a negotiated political settlement to the war in Afghanistan. An unstable government in Kabul will undermine the prospects for achieving that outcome.