Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Warning Intelligence Update: The Wild Card That Could Derail U.S. Efforts in Afghanistan

By Scott DesMarais

Key Takeaway: The Government of Afghanistan faces an impending constitutional crisis that could destabilize the country absent significant diplomatic engagement by the U.S. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s legal term expires on May 22, 2019, but Afghanistan will not hold new presidential elections until at least September 28. Powerful opposition leaders are demanding a transitional government to bridge the gap until elections but have no agreed-upon plan for governance. A destabilizing competition amongst powerbrokers would derail U.S. efforts to facilitate reconciliation with the Taliban and could trigger state collapse in Afghanistan.


The Government of Afghanistan sits on the verge of a destabilizing constitutional crisis. The mandates of the Afghan National Unity Government (NUG) and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani both expire on May 22.[1] Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission (IEC) has meanwhile postponed the 2019 Afghan Presidential Elections until September 28. It could further delay the vote absent additional international funding. The looming governance gap has attracted attention from opposition powerbrokers. Former Afghan National Security Advisor Hanif Atmar is calling for an interim government to take power as of May 22. Any term extension that favors Ghani will likely be untenable absent a wider settlement between him and his opponents. Political competition could quickly disintegrate into violent conflict as powerbrokers compete for power and legitimacy. However, Ghani’s opponents are historic rivals united only in opposition to his administration. They remain unlikely to agree on a new Government of Afghanistan.


Opposition calls for a transitional government are part of a longstanding political campaign against Ghani. The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) previously assessed that opposition leaders - some of whom are now affiliated with Atmar - could mount an extraconstitutional attempt to oust Ghani and establish a transitional government ahead of the October 2018 Afghan Parliamentary Elections. Ghani’s opponents failed then to gain sufficient constitutional and legal leverage to push for his ouster but the upcoming end of his term grants them a new and more robust opportunity to challenge his presidency.

Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai previously set a legal precedent for a president to remain in office beyond the end of their term following a delay in the 2009 Afghan Presidential Elections. Ghani lacks the same depth of domestic support and personal networks that Karzai exploited to extend his term through the Afghan Supreme Court. Ghani’s deteriorating relations with the U.S. further diminish his leverage by creating a perception of declining support from the West.


The opposition may exploit growing tension between the U.S. and Ghani over ongoing talks with the Taliban to strengthen their position at the expense of Ghani. Ghani suffers from increasingly strained relations with the Trump Administration due to his opposition to ongoing negotiations between the U.S. and the Taliban that exclude the Government of Afghanistan. His position has been further eroded by persistent rumors that U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad might support postponed elections and the establishment of an interim government as proposed by Atmar. Atmar supports the peace talks led by the U.S. and participated in a dialogue between opposition leaders and the Taliban facilitated by Russia.[2] Atmar’s flexibility - when juxtaposed with Ghani - could allow Atmar to eclipse Ghani and the NUG as the preferred partner of the U.S. in Afghanistan. Atmar at a minimum will likely use this perception to broaden his popular appeal as a leader capable of bringing peace to Afghanistan.


The U.S. focus on dialogue with the Taliban increases the risk that a complex and fragile transfer of power descends into a major crisis in Afghanistan. The contested 2014 Afghan Presidential Elections required a major diplomatic effort by the U.S. to avoid a civil war and broker the power-sharing agreement that established the NUG. The NUG has nonetheless failed to implement many key reforms outlined in 2014. The U.S. would likely need to engage in a similar diplomatic effort to guarantee a peaceful transfer of power in either May or September 2019. Yet the U.S. remains focused on talks with the Taliban. These talks fuel the competition between Ghani and other elites, and leave the U.S. ill-postured to ensure a stable transition.

Afghanistan could quickly disintegrate into violent conflict and renewed civil war in a most dangerous scenario. Ghani has repeatedly attempted to marginalize his political rivals and briefly used force in an attempt to undermine opposition powerbroker Atta Mohammad Noor - one of the main supporters of Atmar - on March 14. Ghani could attempt to use his authority over the Afghan National Security and Defense Forces (ANDSF) to further challenge his rivals, sparking a conflict between security forces loyal to the state and those loyal to a variety of opposition figures, including Atta.[3] A contested transfer of power will also create uncertainty regarding official control over the state and military. These contests for control would highly increase the risk of a wider state collapse that reignites an ethnically-charged civil war between powerbrokers, their private militias, and the remnants of a failing state. They will also undermine the effect that the U.S. seeks to achieve by negotiating with the Taliban - namely, political accommodations that end the War in Afghanistan.

Two looming deadlines could produce an inflection that results in a power vacuum and destabilizes the Government of Afghanistan:
  • May 22 - Expiration of President Ghani’s Term: Ghani and the NUG will lose all legal and constitutional legitimacy on May 22. This gap could produce a destabilizing competition for political control unless the government and opposition powerbrokers reach an acceptable political deal to bridge the gap until the 2019 Afghan Presidential Elections.
  • September 28 - Afghan Presidential Elections: The 2019 Afghan Presidential Elections will likely still be highly contentious even if politicians broker an acceptable deal in May. The NUG has failed to address systemic issues that fueled instability during the disputed 2014 Afghan Presidential Elections. Similar issues are thus likely to reemerge in 2019. Disputed elections will lead to a complicated legal and political battle that could spark a violent conflict similar to 2014.

Only Atmar and members of his campaign staff have thus far called for a transitional government to replace Ghani on May 22. Other opposition leaders have previously indicated their support for some form of transitional government at various times since 2015.[4] These leaders - including several rival candidates in the election - will likely need to unify in order to mount a coherent campaign to oust Ghani. If such a coordinated challenge emerges, it will greatly increase the likelihood that Ghani will be forced to step down in May 2019. This coordination nonetheless remains unlikely to lead to a stable deal on a future transitional government.

If multiple candidates announce their support for a temporary extension for Ghani beyond May 2019, however, Atmar and his allies may struggle to gain enough momentum to successfully challenge the extension and achieve the ouster of Ghani.


Ghani will hold very little constitutional or legal legitimacy after May 22 regardless of any deal to extend his term until September 2019. The U.S. will struggle to facilitate a reconciliation dialogue between the Government of Afghanistan and the Taliban if it is unclear which entity holds the legal right to negotiate on behalf of Afghanistan with the Taliban. Internal competition sparked by a legitimacy crisis or disputed elections will also further weaken the Government of Afghanistan, reducing or eliminating the Taliban’s incentive to negotiate a settlement - especially if the Taliban is in positon to capitalize on internal disputes during the fighting season in 2019.

The U.S. has incorrectly prioritized negotiations with the Taliban rather than diplomatic management of the political competition for the Government of Afghanistan. The U.S. needs to broaden its focus to include efforts aimed at fostering greater cooperation among the full group of powerbrokers and political elites across Afghanistan. This engagement could reduce destabilizing competitions that threaten civil war and provide a more robust, stable, and enduring political context into which it will be possible to integrate reconciled leaders of the Taliban.

[1] The Afghan Constitution stipulates that the president’s term expires five years after the previous election year - thus May 22, 2019. Former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry clearly stated that the Afghan National Unity Government (NUG) would expire concurrently with Ghani’s term.
[2] Hanif Atmar and several other opposition leaders attended a dialogue with the Taliban facilitated by Russia in February 2019. They are preparing to attend a second round of dialogue in Qatar on April 14-15.
[3] Atta Mohammad Noor, for example, reportedly controls a network of private militias that are officially components of both the Afghan National Police and the Afghan Local Police.
[4] There have been calls for early elections or a transitional government since the start of the legitimacy crisis for the Afghan National Unity Government (NUG) in 2015.