While the world’s eyes are turned to the Middle East, and specifically Iraq and Israel, in Central Asia Afghanistan is on the verge of suffering its own slide into failed state status. Thousands of people gathered in Kabul to support Abdullah Abdullah, who lost the recent June run-off to secure the office of President. Now, it appears that Abdullah and his supporters are considering the establishment of a parallel government.
The protests are coming after Ashraf Ghani was declared the victor of the recent election. Ghani is a former World Bank employee and widely respected in the international community. Regardless, Abdullah is declaring fraud and contesting the vote. Abdullah himself has charged fraud in past elections and created the Coalition for Change and Hope, a powerful democratic opposition movement.
Afghanistan is an Ethnically Charged Powder Keg
Just as Iraq is split along ethnic and religious lines, so to is Afghanistan. The largest ethnic group is the Pashtun, but they fail to make up a majority of the country, accounting for 42 percent of the population. Meanwhile, Tajik make up 27 percent of the population, while the Hazara and Uzbek each contribute 9 percent. In regards to religion (sect), approximately 80 percent are believed to be Sunni, with the rest being Shia.
Unsurprisingly, Ashraf Ghani hails from the Pashtun tribe while Abdullah is from the Tajik tribe. With the election in contention, the long-running rivalry between the two tribes has flared up and if a resolution is not found quickly, there is a genuine risk of ethnic infighting.
Even ethnic and religious ties, however, explain only the highest levels of the divisions dividing the country. If the country were to destabilize, tribal lines and local rivalries themselves could explode. Up until the emergence of the Taliban, Afghanistan was essentially a failed state lacking any true unity or internal stability. Now it is at risk of becoming one yet again
Indeed, most of Afghanistan’s history has been a history of tribes and local governance. The rocky terrain, sparse population, and long distances between major cities have always made Afghanistan a difficult place to govern. The potential for Afghanistan to destabilize is very high, and if so the country could prove to be almost impossible to hold together.
United States Threatens Withdrawal of Funds
With the situation if Afghanistan rapidly destabilizing, American officials warned that they would withdraw funding and security should anyone try to take power illegally. While the threat was light on specifics, it was directed at Abdullah and his supporters as any attempt to form a parallel government would be classified as an illegal attempt to seize power.
Afghanistan is heavily reliant on international funding and generous levels of support from the American government. In 2012, the American government dispersed about $10 billion dollars worth of economic and military aid to Afghanistan. To put this into perspective, the next highest disbursement was Israel with $3.1 billion. Over $2.5 billion of this aid was economic aid, with the rest being military. Afghanistan depends on American both for help with fighting the Taliban and funding national development projects.
If the United States were to withdrawal aid and military support, the central government would likely collapse. Right now, Afghanistan’s tax base is minuscule and American funding is necessary for funding day-to-day operations. With funding cut the government would no longer be able to pay its own bills and employees, and the military buffer keeping the Taliban away from Kabul would all but evaporate.
Secretary of State John Kerry will be visiting Afghanistan on Friday, after he finishes up talks in China. If Afghanistan were to erupt into violence and infighting, there would be little the American government could do. With Iraq already teetering on the edge of collapse and becoming a failed state, the destabilization of Afghanistan would be another serious blow to America’s credibility.