Don’t Waste the Afghan Election Crisis

Last month's presidential vote in Afghanistan has become a royal mess -- but it's also a great opportunity to do much-needed political clean-up.

Paula Bronstein/Getty Images
Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

The election that was supposed to move Afghanistan one step closer to democracy has instead become nothing less than a full-blown political crisis. Initial results from August’s presidential election show a win for the incumbent, Hamid Karzai. But widespread allegations of ballot-rigging and wider government corruption have already discredited the vote. The U.N.-backed Electoral Complaints Commission has thrown out results from 83 polling stations, "quarantined" those of 600 others, and called for a recount from another 10 percent. Karzai’s election opponents are crying foul; runner-up Abdullah Abdullah has demanded a complete revote and warned that, if Karzai returns to office on the basis of this deeply flawed process, there will be a "vacuum of power, security and stability." Tensions are high and the threat of broader unrest is looming.

Luckily, we have in the White House an administration that should understand how to handle such a moment: "Never let a serious crisis go to waste," White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel noted last November, "it’s an opportunity to do things you couldn’t do before." Although Emanuel was referring to U.S. economic woes, if the Obama administration is serious about turning the corner in the war against the Taliban, it ought to consider extending his philosophy to the current crisis, rather than just putting a good face on an ugly situation and muddling through.

The stakes couldn’t be higher. Casualties are mounting, the Taliban show no sign of exhaustion, and the U.S., NATO, and Afghan troops can hardly be expected to fight and die in defense of a regime widely perceived as corrupt, ineffective and now blatantly illegitimate.

Washington’s officials and pundits have a tendency to underestimate the importance of politics in Afghanistan, focusing instead on troop levels and budgetary expenditures as the primary measures of progress or failure. This is a mistake; a lasting victory in this war can only be won in partnership with Afghans, and victory over the Taliban will require a combination of state capacity and popular legitimacy. Since Afghan state capacity is likely to be in short supply for the foreseeable future, legitimacy will be all the more necessary to achieve success. It’s now clear that the massively rigged presidential election will neither confer legitimacy on the victor, nor turn the unpopular incumbent out of office-a double failure.

Its options dwindling, it appears that Washington is pressing Afghanistan’s presidential contenders to unify, regardless of whether or not a second round election proves necessary. That logic has superficial appeal: a unity government that combines the strengths of Karzai, Abdullah, and others including the technocrat Ashraf Ghani might seem like a sensible way to overcome electoral fraud and improve prospects for good governance in the future. As a short term patch-up, a unity government might also be the path of least resistance, even though this option is, at least for now, deeply unpopular among the contenders and their respective backers.

Yet even Americans with short memories will recall that, not long ago, Abdullah and Ghani were members of Karzai’s government. Both left disgruntled and disillusioned with the political system in Kabul. It is hard to see how a national unity government under President Karzai’s aegis would today offer fertile ground for constructive reform.

Instead of tinkering at the margins, Washington and its international partners should seize this opportunity to press Kabul to organize a second constitutional convention, or loya jirga. Like the last convention in 2003, it would bring together elected and traditional leaders from throughout Afghanistan to ratify a new structure for democratic governance. A second loya jirga offers at least three potential benefits.

First, by reopening the door to nationwide participation in a meaningful political debate, a new constitutional convention might help to reenergize the Afghan public, shift the political momentum away from the Taliban, and offer an alternative to "more of the same" in Kabul. For Afghans who have become increasingly demoralized by the corrupt and ineffective practices of their government, a convention provides a forum for venting grievances that went unaddressed by the flawed presidential election process. And even if a convention is closed to Taliban representation per se, the meeting could still provide an opportunity for the reconciliation and political empowerment of Afghanistan’s most conservative Pashtun tribes — a necessary step for ending the insurgency.

Second, a convention could address debilitating institutional problems enshrined in the current Afghan constitution. The present system is marked by dominant presidential authority, weak political parties, and limited democratic accountability at the provincial level. Few new democratic states have succeeded with such centralized governing structures, especially in countries wracked by civil conflict. Worse, Karzai’s overarching constitutional authorities have never been met with real institutional capacity, creating an unhealthy mismatch between his nominal responsibilities and his actual power to get anything done. Local governments would be better placed to meet the everyday needs of citizens, if, that is, they were allowed (and empowered) to do so.

Third, a convention might offer a fresh start for the United States and the rest of the international community involved in Afghanistan. A bold new political initiative in Kabul would complement Washington’s new counterinsurgency strategy, new military leadership, and renewed commitment to the war effort. Recent European proposals to pull together another international conference on Afghanistan also suggest a desire to re-engage NATO allies and bolster confidence in the mission.

Those who see Afghanistan as a "mission impossible" may view calls for another constitutional convention as a sign of weakness or failure. And Karzai would likely fight the idea tooth and nail. But Americans might recall the circumstances of their own Constitutional Convention of 1787, another opportunity born of crisis. At that convention, the Founders did away with the deeply flawed Articles of Confederation-the first constitution of the United States- and built structures of government that have endured to this day. A second loya jirga might not do so well. But the alternative is to let this crisis go to waste.

Daniel Markey is a senior research professor of international relations and academic director of the global policy program at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. His website:

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