Dr. Abdullah and the Return of the Ousted

Ever since being dropped from president Karzai’s cabinet as a result of the 2004 reshuffle, former Afghan minister of foreign affairs Dr. Abdullah has been uncharacteristically acquiescent. Uncharacteristically, I say, given the context of Afghanistan and third world politics. Usually in these settings such high profile dropouts are problematic, and the fact that Dr. Abdullah (and likewise his comrade in arms Marshall Fahim) have proved unwilling (or unable) to be more vocal or active in their opposition to the government only bears good tiding for the country, and bodes well for its political future.

Whether by the force of the circumstances (read American military force) or by the dictate of their own good senses, those who have been sidelined by president Karzai have chosen to abandon the age-old cycle of Afghan politics, and have actually stayed on the sidelines. Further, thanks to president Karzai’s famous personal distaste for sidelining others and his open embrace of assorted rivals and revolutionaries, including not a few undesirables, there are not many who have lost out, thus the absence of a ‘critical mass’ of powerful losers who could turn on the government. (Of course here we are talking about those in the broadly defined political mainstream of Afghanistan, and not the Taliban or those associated with Hekmatyar.)

That is, until recently. The formation of the United National Front (UNF) is a clear sign that those on the sidelines would like to be part of the action. Similarly, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, whose name has not been explicitly mentioned as part of the UNF line-up, has been making pronouncements about the state of Afghan affairs as of late. In fact, in a recent interview Dr. Abdullah raised important and barely veiled concerns about the current government’s performance, the “deteriorating security situation in an ethnically diverse country,” and what he called the government’s “shortcomings in strategic vision.” (Though when asked what he meant by lack of strategic vision, the answer was a muddled tautological mess.)

The recent surge in criticism and political posturing, coincide as it does with the rising tide of insecurity and other travails for the government, goes to show that the initial acquiescence of those who were ousted and marginalized, though partly inevitable in the face of American backing of the Karzai administration, has also been due in part to the fact that the government of Afghanistan was going through its probationary period. Now that its mettle has been tested, and by many an observer’s standards, it has not passed the test, the marginalized few see a clear opportunity in criticizing the government and posturing as an alternative leadership.

If these lines read like an accusation of opportunism, they are not. Quite the contrary: this is a welcome note.

Concerted political opposition is one of the few mechanisms by which democratic governments are held accountable. Even if election season is still far away; even if the current government has the wholesome political, military, and economic backing of the world’s sole hyper-power (and the few who are reluctantly going along, mainly to save face); even if political parties are so nascent in Afghanistan that they have not a hope or a prayer of winning nation-wide, cross-ethnic elections anytime soon; and even if there are far too many bad memories attached to the names of those who currently pose as alternatives; even so, the mere consciousness of an alternative, and a political opposition increases the ‘supply’ in the ‘marketplace’ that is a democratic polity, and is bound to have a positive impact on the government’s performance. This is why political opposition -granted that it remains in the mainstream of national political discourse, eschews extremism, and does not resort to violence- is indispensable to the democratic process in Afghanistan and should be welcomed. This is also the spirit, incidentally, in which the criticisms put forth by the UNF leadership and by Dr. Abdullah more recently have to be used by the government as a laundry-list of its own failings to be addressed.

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