The Abdullah Principle: Seconds in Command as National Unifiers

Afghanistan's presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah poses for photos before he casts his vote at a pooling station in Kabul, Afghanistan, Saturday, June 14, 2014. (AP Photo/Massoud Hossaini)

buy cytotec india news The political compromise that is Afghanistan’s new government seems intentionally confusing. The extension of an already corrupt and distrusted bureaucracy is not the orthodox solution to the threat of a political crisis turned civil war. But Afghanistan’s model, also practiced by democracies in the United States and the Middle East, show how the true usefulness of a second in command can be their symbolic unification of a divided country.

In the summer of 2014, the world held its breath as Afghanistan proceeded with its first ever presidential election. A country ravaged by centuries of proxy wars, drug trafficking, and religious extremism, Afghanistan was about to endure the crucible of fledgling democracy, a trial by fire that would test the viability of a popularly elected government in one of the world’s sickest, least educated, and most dangerous nations. Abdullah Abdullah, a former aide to President Karzai, emerged with a lead in the first round of voting, only to be trounced by Ashraf Ghani, a western technocrat, and former IMF representative, in the runoff round. Brawls broke out between both men’s supporters as threats of civil war began to surface. Allegations of voter fraud and electoral mismanagement lead to a lengthy audit period overseen with unprecedented involvement by the United Nations. Then finally, on September 21st, 2014, the issue was resolved before the electoral commission could even release the final results. The top two choices had brokered a deal, unsanctioned by the Afghan people, to share their power and “unite” their nation.

The National Unity Government was a necessary response to an urgent crisis, but the details of its construction cause some head scratching even among the world’s pre-eminent political scientists. Mr. Ghani, the winner of the second round, assumed the role of president. Like Mr. Karzai before him, he became the symbol of the Afghan government, inheriting all the responsibilities and privileges that had been incorporated into the position by the 2000 Afghan constitution. Particularly considering the weakness of the national legislature, Mr. Ghani has exceptional control over legislative affairs.

For his part, Mr. Abdullah became the Chief Executive Officer of the government. In a name that belies the naked officiousness of the position, the CEO of Afghanistan has a position that is more important in the abstract than in practice. Justified by a constitutional provision which allows the President to create extra-constitutional posts, the Chief Executive Officer of Afghanistan is responsible for supervising the weekly assembly of the Minister’s Council. Far from a veritable Cabinet, the Minister’s Council consists of unelected experts who are not expected or entitled to make any policy decisions. The MC is simply allowed to recommend courses of action to the President. What’s more, President Ghani is allowed to preside over the council meetings one time per month, effectively nullifying the significance of Mr. Abdullah’s post.

But despite the impotence built into the job description, the CEO has played a role more important than second in commands in many other countries: Abdullah’s assumption of the position has united the nation. The power-sharing agreement signed by Mr. Ghani and Mr. Abdullah united a country on the brink of a disastrous civil war that had the potential the wipe democracy off the agenda for decades. In exchange for his willing incorporation into the government, Abdullah was given say over several key advisors and a promise that within the next two years the Afghan parliament would vote on instating him at the country’s prime minister. But as second in command, Abdullah has likely already made the greatest contribution to Afghanistan that he will ever make.

Throughout the world’s political systems, deputies and seconds-in-command are often most useful as uniters, even if the title isn’t officially part of their job description.

In the United States, the appointment and choice of seconds in command can unify political factions and reconcile former enemies. The position of Vice President is often reserved for someone who can appeal to constituencies that the presidential candidate has difficulty reaching. Although his duties are nearly as limited as that of the CEO in Afghanistan, the Vice President is an important overture in the political process and serves as a unifier. Spiro Agnew gave President Nixon a foothold in the American south, and, in 1960, Lyndon B. Johnson incorporated the Southern Democrats into John F. Kennedy’s coalition. Most recently, President Obama chose his former rival Hillary Clinton to serve in another crucial deputy position, as Secretary of State, reconciling two estranged branches of the Democratic establishment and shoring up the foundations of the party.

The use of second in commands as unifiers extends to the Middle East as well. In Lebanon, the system of government is designed to unite the diverse population through a strict representation of its various communities. The President, a largely ceremonial position, must be a Christian, and his presence in the government lends feelings of security and representation to that faction of society. The Prime Minister is required by the National Pact of 1943 to be a Sunni Muslim while the Speaker of the Parliament must be Shia Muslim. While the role of second in command is slightly more muddled in this model, the Lebanese Government guarantees through a complex series of appointments and restrictions that the diverse country will remain unified under one government.

These three examples of a second in command generating unification, improvisationally, in practice, and in a way codified by law, demonstrate that the real value of seconds in command may lie not merely in their administrative responsibilities or even their advice, but in their very presence in the government.

The system in Afghanistan is designed, as its title suggests, to unite the country through the creation of a second in command. We will have to wait and see if the position’s usefulness endures the harsh political climate of the country.