The 2009 Afghanistan Elections and the Future of Governance

The August 20 presidential and provincial council elections provide a crucial opportunity for Afghanistan and represent a test for at least three critical issues in that country.

At the most basic level, the elections are an essential mechanism of accountability of the Afghan government toward its people. Although the mechanism is imperfect, given that many Afghans with strong tribal culture follow in their vote their tribal leaders, it nonetheless is the most direct and frequently sole mechanism for many Afghans to evaluate and affirm or dismiss their leaders. Given the pervasive level of corruption and the dearth of Afghan courts and their not infrequent impotence vis-à-vis holders of political power, accountability through legitimate legal oversight is woefully lacking. Thus accountability through elections is all the more important.

Afghanistan did not have a single peaceful transfer of power until 2005 when Hamid Karzai was elected president, after having served as an appointed interim president since 2001. A free and fair process this year where all major power brokers (with the exception of the Taliban, of course) accept a nonviolent change or continuation of power as legitimately determined by the will of the people would be a strong indication that Afghanistan is moving beyond the fierce contestation of the writ of the state and bridging the regional and local-elite-driven fissures that have historically plagued the country. Whether any of the 41 candidates for president manages to receive over 50 percent of the vote and hence avoid runoff (most likely Hamid Karzai who consistently polls highest with numbers in the mid-thirties, followed by Abdullah Abdullah with around 7 percent, and Ashraf Ghani with about 3 percent) and whether his or her (there are two female candidates) challenger will cry fraud and unleash street protests will be a critical test for the legitimacy of the elections.

At a time when many Afghans are deeply disappointed with the developments in their country since 2001 and the original optimism after the fall of the Taliban has dissipated, the elections, if credibly seen as reasonably free and fair, will also be an affirmation to the Afghan people that at least to some extent they hold their future and the future of their country in their hands. Since conspiracy-theory-loving Afghans frequently believe that Washington will decide who wins the elections and since like many in South Asia tend to consider the United States omnipotent, it is equally important that the outcome is seen not only as internally clean, but also as genuinely an internal decision, not one imposed from abroad. So far, the emphatic proclamations of the international community that its sole goal is to help Afghans make sure that the elections are peaceful and free and fair and that it is in no way trying to manipulate the outcome have failed to persuade many Afghans.

The elections also will be seen as an indication of the military strength of the Afghan government and the international community and the appeal of their vision for Afghanistan in contrast to those of the Taliban that is set to disrupt the elections. Mullah Omar has called for a boycott of the elections and the Taliban fighters are poised to violently disrupt the voting process. In some parts of the country, especially in the south, the Taliban presence is so strong that voting will not likely take place at all. Notwithstanding this threat, the more the Afghan and international security forces manage to assure that voters can get to polling stations and back to their homes safely, the clearer the message will be that the strength of the Taliban is limited.

Of course, even fully peaceful elections do not mean that the Taliban is anywhere close to defeated. Nonetheless, unlike in the election registration process earlier this year in which the Taliban frequently did not seek to prevent and disrupt registration, with respect to the voting process itself, the Taliban has symbolically staked a lot on making sure that the elections are not seen as legitimate. In a counterinsurgency situation, where much of the contest between the insurgents and the counterinsurgent forces is about manipulating perceptions of the population, even such a tactical loss for the Taliban as the elections being basically peaceful, would provide an important break from a steady string of Taliban psychological successes over the past two years: a continually declining mood, disillusionment, and perception of acute insecurity among the population, especially in the south of the country.

Finally, the elections provide an opportunity for ushering in more effective and responsible governance in Afghanistan – both at the national and local levels. Although the presidential elections receive most attention abroad, the provincial council elections are also very important because they will have a direct impact on the quality of governance that most Afghans experience daily. Delivering good governance represents one of the greatest challenges in Afghanistan – both for counterinsurgency and for stabilization and development of Afghanistan. Afghans are deeply angry with the various manifestations of poor governance they encounter: corruption of the national police and government officials, the dramatic increase in extortion through official and unofficial checkpoints along roads, the lack of rule of law, including the lack of mechanisms for dispute resolution, such as over water and land, personalistic business and political deals that compromise economic development of the entire community, the absence of local government officials from their districts, and human insecurity, including that driven by crime, such as kidnapping and robbery.

Indeed, the lack of good governance represents a key mobilization opportunity for the Taliban. Along with the protection of poppy fields and hence protection of the only source of livelihood available to many Afghans, the Taliban’s provision of security from crime, such as extortion along checkpoints, robbery, and kidnapping, and the provision of dispute resolution mechanisms, brutal and imperfect as they may be, represent key sources of support for the insurgents today as they did in the 1990s. While few Afghans bemoan the absence of the Taliban’s backward and brutal ideology and extensive infringement on their daily life and customs, they frequently talk of the physical security they enjoyed during the Taliban era after the chaotic civil war and capricious warlordism of the early 1990s. Although the Taliban in the 1990s completely failed to embrace and improve the economic aspirations of the Afghan people (apart from sponsoring the poppy economy), greatly diminished their personal freedoms, and subjected them to brutal punishments, it managed to provide a relief from the previous insecurity, capriciousness, crime, and chaos of the war. The contestation today between the various elements of the Taliban and the national government and its local representatives is a crucible for the counterinsurgency effort. While NATO and the international community can assist in delivering security and for a while in fact be its primary provider, and while they can help with delivering economic development, the effort will be critically affected by the quality of Afghan governance.

Unfortunately, there is little reason to believe that the elections will necessarily redress the paucity of good governance in Afghanistan. Even a peaceful and free and fair electoral process does not guarantee that the substance of governance will radically improve after the elections. To a large extent that is what happened with the previous four years of governance under President Karzai. In 2005, Karzai was overwhelmingly elected in free and fair elections. But the performance of the national government continued to fail to meet the expectation of the Afghan people. The removal of many of the ex-warlords, frequently with connections to the drug trade and a record of severe human rights violations, who had encumbered Karzai’s first government, such as Mohammad Fahim, Rashid Dostum, Sher Mohammand Akhundzaza, and Jan Mohammad, also did not result in improved governance. Even out of the office, they have continued to wield enough unofficial power through their tribal pull, ability to reconstitute militias, and ability to influence local politics to frighten Karzai into not frontally challenging them and not making hard, but necessary decisions. Meanwhile, corruption continued to spread throughout the government.

As governance continued to deteriorate and Karzai’s legitimacy based on the inadequate performance of his government continued to slip, Karzai progressively sought to cloak himself with other forms of legitimacy, instead of finding means to improve governance. Indeed, these other sources of legitimacy frequently clashed with efforts to improve governance. At first, Karzai appointed very conservative ulema in Kabul to claim religious legitimacy. Then he embraced nationalism – decrying both Pakistan’s machinations in Afghanistan and civilian casualties caused by NATO and even questioning NATO’s presence in Afghanistan at times. Most lately, Karzai has latched onto a renewed cleavage in Afghanistan between the old mujahideen commanders (with a checkered warlord history complicating their anti-Soviet heroism) and ex-Communist Afghan commanders who it turned out had better skills at governance in the post-Taliban era than many of the ex-mujahideen and tribal leaders. The high praise lavished by the international community on General Mohammad Gulab Mangal for his performance as governor of Helmand has become an emblematic thorn in the side of many of the former mujahideen commanders eased out of official power at the instigation of the international community for their poor governance, human rights abuses, and criminality.

Yet it was precisely these problematic power brokers to whom Hamid Karzai reached out in the 2009 pre-election bargaining process. In return for supporting his reelection, they were promised appointments in his cabinet, governorships, and other positions of power. The newly co-opted power brokers include Fahim who is running as one of Karzai’s vice president, Dostum, Akhundzaza, Jan Mohammand, Matullah Khan, Gul Agha Sherzai, and Mohammad Mohaqiq. Karzai’s co-optation of them assured that they would not run against him (notably Sherzai) and deliver important tribal and ethnic vote (Mohaqiq the Hazara; Mohammad, Khan, and Sherzai the Barakzai; Dostum the Uzbek).

If Karzai wins the presidential elections (whether in one or two rounds), it is difficult to see how the pre-election bargains will allow him to come back to the presidential Arg Palace with a clean slate and strong commitment and capacity for good governance. At the same time, the marked escalation of tensions between Karzai and the international community during the pre-election period (such as Karzai’s attacks on NATO for civilian casualties and his resentment at the U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry appearing at a joint press conference with his two rivals, Abdullah and Ghani) will make the relations between the Afghan national government centralized in the president and the international community difficult. At a time when close cooperation and coordination is necessary for the increased effectiveness of the counterinsurgency and reconstruction efforts, such a tense relationship will be a major impediment. Karzai may well have a tendency to perceive appropriate suggestions of how to improve governance as driven by a desire to undercut him.

But even if Karzai does not win the elections, improved governance in Afghanistan will not automatically follow. Although of mixed origin – part Tajik, part Pashtun – Abdullah Abdullah, even if elected legitimately, will struggle to persuade the Pashtuns that he genuinely represents their interests also and does not favor the northern Tajiks. While an effective non-Pashtun at the helm of the country could be a great force toward consolidating democratization and state-building in Afghanistan, he will be highly susceptible to charges of anti-Pashtun sentiments. A widespread Pashtun suspicions about the legitimacy of a non-Pahstun leader can complicate the counterinsurgency effort. Already the accusation that the non-Pashtun Northern Alliance has dominated the post-2001 government has fueled the Taliban.

The third-place-polling contender, Ashraf Ghani, is widely perceived as an accomplished technocrat. As a minister of finance between 2002 and 2004, Ghani carried out an effective fiscal reform, operationalized the Afghan national budget, and issued a new currency. He also took on the warlords in the first Karzai government, including Fahim over demobilization of militias. Ghani, however, like many of the other technocrats brought back to Afghanistan to take on various government roles, lacks a strong tribal base and connections to local power brokers. Although this lack of an internal powerbase can allow him to rise above parochial interests, it also can hamper him in implementing the will of the center.

In fact, such a lack of local powerbase can be not only a problem for getting elected, but also for governing, as, for example, the Canadian-Afghan academic Tooryalai Wesa found when he took over the governorship of Kandahar in December 2008. His technocratic skills ran into local power realities, including the Shirzai and Karzai family dominance of Kandahar and the strong influence of Wali Ahmed Karzai, Karzai’s half-brother. Wali Karzai is widely alleged to be a drug dealer even though no evidence has ever been provided. Nonetheless, Wali Karzai’s undertakings have not always been seen as conducive to good governance. But as a NATO official told me on my visit to Kandahar this past April, without Wali on the provincial council, nothing would get done in Kandahar as long as he continued to exercise unofficial power. Indeed, many problematic leaders removed from official government positions have continued to wield substantial power and frustrate both Kabul and the international community. This juxtaposition of unofficial power and frequently corrupt and ineffective national and local government lies at the heart of governance problems in Afghanistan.

The challenge for even the capable and highly-motivated technocrats to overcome the systemic governance deficiencies also reveals the difficulty in seeking to improve governance by “going local,” as the international community has tried to do for the past three years. Seeking to improve local governance is indeed highly appropriate and necessary since Kabul is frequently far too distant – physically and otherwise – from the highly local concerns of the Afghan people. Local district chiefs, police chiefs, and governors are the crucial face of the Afghan government and the purveyors of the quality of governance that most Afghan people see. Unfortunately, the mechanisms created by the international community, such as the Independent Directorate of Local Governance (IDLG), have often failed to improve governance: IDLG has, for example, turned out far less independent than hoped for and national power brokers have developed a capacity to manipulate it. Many local Afghan leaders also have turned out incompetent and corrupt. Thus “going local” has not necessarily resulted in better governance.

Just “going local” will not be sufficient to generate the necessary changes in the quality of governance on which so much of the counterinsurgency and stabilization effort depends. Finding ways to improve governance at the national level is indispensible. Perhaps creating a position of de facto prime minister under the president may be one way to bring some improvements in governance at the national level. Apparently, Hamid Karzai has approached both the former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan and the United Nations, Zalmay Khalilzad, and Ashraf Ghani, to explore if they were interested in such a position in exchange for not running against him. But even if such a position were in fact created and occupied by a capable and committed official, his or her success in helping to deliver better governance throughout the system would be far from guaranteed.

While it is critical that the international community is seen as impartial with respect to the outcome of the elections and seen only as facilitating its peaceful and fair and free conduct, it is also necessary that it approaches the new Afghan government with a clear understanding that multi-faceted international support to the Afghan government is conditioned on its effort to deliver effective and accountable governance. The Afghan people need accountability from the national and local government officials, but so does the international community. Without improvements in governance, counterinsurgency and stabilization efforts will be critically hampered, no matter what the level of the international military and economic assistance. It is all the more essential that such onus is put on the new Afghan government since the international community, sacrificing blood and treasure in Afghanistan, albeit for strategic security interests in terms of counterterrorism and the stabilization of Afghanistan and Pakistan, will inevitably be associated in the minds of the Afghan people with the national government. What the international community needs to focus on in its demands on the national government and its local representatives is what matters most to the Afghan people: human security from violence and crime, economic security from hunger, reduction in corruption, and rule of law.

At the same time, the international community needs to avoid the temptation to itself deliver such governance to the Afghans instead of it being delivered by the Afghan government. Even if successful in accomplishing tactical governance objectives, such assistance by the U.S. and its allies will not accomplish the strategic objectives of defeating the insurgency and helping to build – a legitimate and secure Afghan state. To accomplish those goals, governance needs not only to have an Afghan face, but also to come from Afghan hands.