The following is a guest post by Renard Sexton, a doctoral candidate in political science at New York University.


Days ago, the principal contenders to the Afghan presidency announced a power-sharing arrangement that will give both Ashraf Ghani, the declared winner of this year’s election, and Abdullah Abdullah, the runner-up, a governing role.

Achieving this accord is no small feat; if it holds, this will be the first peaceful transition of power in Afghanistan since 1973. Observers note that it was indeed the threat of violence from supporters of Abdullah, who claims to have been robbed of the election by malfeasance, that brought the deal to completion.

In practical terms the political bargain represents a divvying up of government posts – and their associated foreign aid and other patronage – among the two camps. Each leader will be able to reward a proportion of his supporters with plum positions and access, though for both in smaller measures than was expected. In the end, going to war over the election result was not worth it for either side, even though it meant giving up perhaps half of the government patronage apparatus to his rival.

Not so long ago such a “rationalist,” bargained solution was an impossible dream for Afghanistan. In 1992, shortly after the disintegration of the USSR, the Afghanistan Communist government under President Mohammad Najibullah was swept from power. The numerous armed opposition groups that had spent years trying to eject the Soviet-sponsored regime now had the opportunity to establish a unity government.

Two main factions competed for the top posts in the post-war government. Led by “Professor” Burhanuddin Rabbani and military chief Ahmad Shah Massoud, the Jamiat-e Islami represented Persian-speaking Sunnis (often lumped into the quasi-ethnic group “Tajik”) and their allies. In primary opposition was Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e Islami, which was largely Pashtun in composition.

The United Nations and Pakistan, along with the United States, attempted to pull together a peace settlement between the various factions in what becomes known as the Peshawar Accords, signed on April 24, 1992. Hekmatyar refused to participate, saying that he would not share power with Massoud, but the other major mujahedeen groups signed on, with Jamiat’s Rabbani as president and Massoud as minister of defense (Hekmatyar was offered to the post of prime minister).

The next week, Hekmatyar began to bombard the city of Kabul from his mountainside position on the southern outskirts of the city, using his heavy artillery. By this time, fighting had broken out between the various factions, with forces loyal to Massoud and ex-communists under Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum fighting against those of Hekmatyar and another faction of the former Communists. Hezb-e Wahdat and Ittehad-e Islami, both nominally affiliated with the government, also began fighting with each other.

Despite repeated efforts at bargaining between the parties, and some side-switching on the part of smaller groups, violence continued for two years.  In March 1993, a deal was hammered out to share power between Hezb-e Islami and Jamiat until elections would be held in 1994, but this too soon fell apart.

By August 1994, the Pakistani ISI – the main interlocutor in Afghanistan by this point, the United States having almost totally withdrawn – gave up on a negotiated solution between Hekmatyar and Massoud and began organizing and supporting the Taliban as an alternative client.

The Taliban were also supported by Saudi money, including from Osama bin Laden. When the Taliban began their push northward from Kandahar in early 1995, Hekmatyar became trapped between the Jamiat-led government and the advancing Taliban forces and was forced to abandon his artillery positions, substantially reducing his firepower. The Taliban eventually took Kabul in 1996, on their way to controlling almost the entire country by the end of the decade, while Hekmatyar and Massoud spent the rest of the 1990s either on the run or fighting the new government.

What is so different today that a similar showdown did not occur? Many of the ethnic and regional cleavages that separated the parties in the early 1990s remain today, and there is a great deal of personal history. For example, Abdullah was one of Massoud’s closest advisers and associates and ran in part as a representative of Jamiat-e Islami.

First, political leaders in Afghanistan today have a great deal to lose if conditions descend into violence again. Rampant corruption and rent-seeking in the government is highly conducive to distributing patronage, which makes it a well sought after prize. Warlords and politicians, like the late Marshal Fahim, found that in the era of NATO occupation and foreign aid, entrepreneurship, corruption and profiteering pays far better than rural mafia activities.

Second, the parties have relatively good information about the military capacity of their rivals. In contrast, in the 1990s there was a great deal of covert information, leading to poor evaluations of the bargains that were laid on the table by negotiators. At the same time the CIA was quietly providing Massoud with $10 million to $12 million a year from 1989 to 1994, and he was earning tens of millions from taxes on gemstones extraction in Afghanistan’s northeast. Hekmatyar was getting CIA and Pakistani aid distributed through ISI estimated to be in the hundreds of millions, along with money from wealthy Saudis and taxes on the opium trade.

As University of California-Berkeley political scientist Robert Powell has noted, “War is least likely when the existing distribution of benefits reflects the underlying distribution of power.” When you do not know the distribution of power, it is hard to cut a deal over the benefits.

Lastly, the importance of the credible threat of withdrawing support for the government from outsiders —  the United States, the UN and regional players — should not be dismissed. International partners, many of whom pay the bills, have a substantial stake in a settlement, which clearly played a role in leading both sides to sign on the dotted line.

Now that there is a new government in place, we will see how the spoils are divided, but expect them to go especially to those with the most power to disrupt the new arrangement.