As the international community mulls speedy reconciliation with the Taliban, Afghanistan is set to witness presidential elections in April 2019. Amid a deteriorating security situation caused by the Taliban’s mounting attacks on the security forces, and the lack of any clear insight on Washington’s negotiations with Taliban, the nation still seeks a strong leadership capable of insulating its citizens from rising instabilities.
The challenge was further compounded by troubles in the domestic political sphere as differences between incumbent President Ashraf Ghani and allies continued to rise over policy matters, resulting in strained ties with senior leaders such as Atta Mohammad Noor and General Abdul Rashid Dostum, as well as the resignations by top officials.
Meanwhile, as Ghani seeks a second term, the announcement by former national security adviser Mohammad Hanif Atmar that he would contest the presidential polls positions him as a leading contender in the electoral fray. A Durrani Pashtun from Laghman province, as much as Atmar is known for his integral role in the nation’s high politics, his credibility is further strengthened by his strong connections with grass root level politics, having worked as an aid worker in Pakistan’s refugee camps in the early 1990s.
Atmar banks on his non-corrupt, social worker and non-warlord background to garner legitimacy.
In the first ten years of Afghan rule under president Hamid Karzai, Atmar served in multiple positions, in charge of rural development, education, and the interior ministries until his resignation in 2010. His image as a reformer had been established more than a decade earlier, back when he oversaw the implementation of the National Solidarity Program, a World Bank funded initiative that sought to rebuild Afghanistan through developing community-driven reconstruction projects while at the same time ensuring financial accountability.
Later, his resignation from the position of interior minister, along with that of then National Directorate of Security chief Amrullah Saleh, was a big setback to Afghanistan’s security sector, as both the men oversaw reforms to rebuild the Afghan forces and were known crusaders against corruption. Under Atmar, the interior ministry initiated several reforms including salary hikes, checks on bribery, and improvement in training facilities for the Afghan Police.
In the foreign policy domain, a thorough reading of the Dari media explains how Atmar’s seeks a course correction of some of Ghani’s policies that have been out of sync with those of the international community.
On the issue of negotiating with the Taliban, Ghani’s differing stance became evident in the recently held UN Conference in Geneva. On one hand, while Washington seeks an early conflict resolution, shown by US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad’s hyperactive diplomacy. Ghani, on the other hand, has proposed a five-year plan to negotiate peace after the elections. Considering the fragile stability in Afghanistan, a domestic consensus over negotiations is the need of the hour, which is only possible with a strong leadership playing a unifying role. But the growing accusations about Ghani’s monopolising tendencies have only distanced other allies, while growing inter-tribal rivalries, allegations of favouritism, and the arrest of popular anti-Taliban commanders have sparked violent protests.
Further, growing mistrust by international donors due to corruption have weakened Ghani’s constituency over the years. This backdrop offers the chance to evaluate Atmar’s profile.
Besides his corruption-free image, Atmar has numerous achievements as to his credit during his time as a national security advisor, which make him a suitable candidate for the top job. His negotiation skills were best reflected in bringing the Hizb-e-Islami leader Gulbudin Hekmatyar back to Kabul to recognise the Afghan government’s authority.
Less noticed, but crucial, was the run-up to the June ceasefire with the Taliban, which saw Atmar engage in extensive negotiations with multiple international stakeholders, including his visit to Islamabad for crucial talks with the Pakistan Army in May. The Taliban’s declaration marked the first time it observed peace since it was ousted from power in October 2001. Atmar was also at the forefront of negotiating a security agreement with the US charting the American presence post-2014 in Afghanistan. Indeed, the office of National Security Advisor indeed rose to prominence under him, a development which Ghani saw as a parallel center of power.
Time and again, the American establishment has voiced concerns regarding the exorbitant amount spent in rebuilding Afghanistan in light of the progress achieved. The election of Donald Trump – whose criticism of Barack Obama’s Afghanistan policy was well-known – heightened fears that Afghanistan would be devoid of any financial or reconstruction aid once the Americans depart. While Atmar has established strong credentials as a trustworthy candidate, he would be assigned the colossal responsibility of convincing the international community, particularly the American establishment, to continue supporting Afghanistan’s nation-building efforts.
As part of his image projection, Atmar banks on his non-corrupt, social worker and non-warlord background to garner legitimacy – even from the constituency of voters who look beyond ethnic prisms in making their voting choices. In this transition phase, Afghanistan needs strong leadership that is able to position itself as a central player in the negotiation process by striking a delicate balance between talking to the Taliban and maintaining ties with the international stakeholders for sustained support.