After months of political deadlock, Afghanistan has completed the most peaceful handover of power in its history. However according to a new International Crisis Group report, many challenges still lie ahead. The Centre on Religion & Geopolitics draws out the key religious aspects of the conflict and the political transition from the report's findings and recommendations.

With the inauguration of Ashraf Ghani as president at the end of September, Afghanistan's long political logjam appears to at last be freeing up. Ghani and his opponent Abdullah Abdullah signed an agreement on 21 September, promising a "genuine and meaningful partnership" that would allow them to govern the country together.

With a rising insurgency, increasingly pronounced ethnic dividions, an emerging economic crisis and a large internally displaced population, all in the face of the imminent withdrawal of international troops, a new report from the International Crisis Group (ICG), Afghanistan's Political Transition, says the country's peaceful transfer of power could not have come any sooner. 

The Taliban played a complex role in the electoral process.

The ICG report looks in depth at the complex yet important role of the Taliban in the electoral process. It suggest that apparent examples of political engagement by Taliban leaders in the election could potentially create an opening for negotiations on a resolution to the ongoing conflict, with Ghani already offering political talks to Islamist insurgent groups including the Taliban. However, the report emphasises that the president must avoid any unilateral attempts to reach out to the insurgents; if done without Abdullah's active participation and backing, such efforts could risk unravelling the national unity government and the already fragile political transition.

Graeme Smith, Afghanistan Senior Analyst for ICG makes the point that Afghan government cannot afford to drift, and that any disunity in Kabul will affect the country's ability to "fight its battles and pay its bills". Bringing previously shunned insurgent groups into meaningful negotiation and dialogue, as well as addressing some of their genuine political grievances, would represent a major step in this direction.

Policy Recommendations

Several recommendations are made by ICG, both to the Afghan government and its international partners, largely focused around promoting the cohesion of the unity government while rapidly implementing promised and long-overdue reforms.

  • In the long term, the priority should be on strengthening Afghan institutions, in order to promote sustainability and make foreign assistance unnecessary.
  • Strengthen governance with reforms such as reviewing the structure of government in order to dilute the centralisation of power in Kabul and devolve responsibilities to elected local officials; in addition, seize the opportunity presented by the leadership transition to remove corrupt and abusive figures from government and security posts.
  • This will require continued financial and material assistance from donors, including support for Afghan security forces. President Ashraf Ghani must proceed quickly with his stated plans, including anti-corruption measures, constitutional reform, improvements to the electoral system, and political engagement with insurgents. At the same time, he must avoid unilateral action that could alienate his partners in the new government.

The ICG report may be read in full here.

For more information on the background of religious conflict in Afghanistan, see our , written by Thomas Ruttig of the Afghanistan Analysts Network.