The establishment of a national unity government in Afghanistan last month was a political deal, but was perhaps the only way out of the protracted electoral dispute in which both presidential candidates claimed victory amid allegations of fraud which had the potential of fracturing the country on ethnic lines.
The sense of relief among many countries including India, however, might be short-lived. A new set of challenges confront New Delhi, compelling it to revisit its Afghan policy to ensure that the decade long gains are not frittered away.
The first peaceful democratic transition in Afghanistan has cobbled together a rare concoction of sorts, with the reformists and technocrats sharing power with the raditionalists/conservatives.
While the deal between Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah brings a shift from the earlier centralised mode of executive government, its potential to usher in long-term stability remains unknown. For now, New Delhi seems content to work with the new political dispensation in Kabul.
Post-2001 New Delhi has invested $2 billion in various infrastructure, capacity-building and economic reconstruction projects. Bilateral relations have grown exponentially. By delivering most of the aid through the Afghan government, New Delhi had developed considerable clout with the Karzai regime.
Whether this investment will yield returns under the new dispensation remains to be seen.
The protracted dispute over the presidential elections underlined the challenges to the Afghan political sector. Despite the decade-long international intervention, the lack of attention to political sector reforms and the absence of institutions capable of conflict mediation were evident in the Independent Electoral Commission’s inability to play an impartial role.
During my time as an international election observer in Kabul, I observed both heightened expectations and gradual disenchantment with the electoral process. This would have implications for the future elections. Ahead of the April 2015 parliamentary polls, serious measures of electoral reforms are critical.
While the alternative model is a shift towards greater decentralisation, its viability would remain linked to an ability to move away from the personality-centric and patronage network based approach prevalent in the country so far to long-term institution building and reforms.
New Delhi can make a useful intervention by moving away from investing in the political elites to institution building. Familiar with the challenges of being a federal polity, India can contribute to develop decentralised structures, which will lead to an inclusive polity representing people from the peripheries.
In the long run, this would shrink the space for the extremists. In maintaining a delicate balance of working with the traditionalists and reformists, New Delhi will have to chart a creative strategy of engagement to succeed.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi raised concerns of precipitous US troop withdrawal with President Barack Obama. External affairs minister Sushma Swaraj’s visit to Afghanistan in September, unfurling a mega flag, was much appreciated by the Afghans as a symbol of unity at a time of political uncertainty.
However, in the absence of clear policy pronouncements from New Delhi, these gestures are little beyond symbolism. Over time, the ‘expectation gap’ between aid commitments and delivery is bound to play out.
Revising its strategy to make the required interventions to meet the needs on the ground will be the litmus test of India’s leadership in the neighbourhood and commitment to the long term stabilisation of Afghanistan.
Shanthie Mariet D’Souza is a New Delhi based consultant and security analyst
The views expressed by the author are personal