5 steps to better politics in Afghanistan

In 2014, Afghanistan is scheduled to hold its third presidential election since 2004, just 18 months after the next U.S. presidential inauguration, and at the height of the withdrawal of the international military presence. Then, just a year later, they are supposed to hold a legislative election in 2015.  There is little prospect that either ...


In 2014, Afghanistan is scheduled to hold its third presidential election since 2004, just 18 months after the next U.S. presidential inauguration, and at the height of the withdrawal of the international military presence. Then, just a year later, they are supposed to hold a legislative election in 2015.  There is little prospect that either election will be adequately funded or competently administered. But even if, by some miracle, they come off without a hitch, they will only serve to entrench the corrupt, over-centralized administration in Kabul, and do little to improve governance in the localities. Holding elections in Afghanistan in the midst of its long-running political crisis is a lose-lose situation.

The United States and United Nations should work with the Afghans instead to push for a grand political bargain that could actually make a difference in the counterinsurgency against the Taliban: a new Loya Jirga to amend the constitution, devolve power, adjust the electoral calendar, change the voting system, and invite the Taliban to form a political party. Neither Kabul nor the international community stands to gain from holding another round of elections, but a new political bargain can break the paralysis in Kabul and break the logjam in talks with the Taliban.

I.                    Devolve Power

Afghanistan’s slow-burning political crisis began in 2003, when a Loya Jirga convened in Kabul in December to ratify a new constitution. The new document was modeled closely on the 1964 constitution, itself following closely in the footsteps of constitutions in 1923 and the 1890s. That a new democratic constitution was modeled on the older constitutional monarchy is telling:  the new system simply replaced the hereditary Afghan monarch with an elected President and retained on paper many of the centralized powers that the Afghan kings had claimed (though not always exercised) since the late 19th Century. The new constitution was unanimously ratified by acclamation in January 2004.

The United States and the U.N. are often blamed for creating or forcing a centralized system onto the Afghans at the Bonn Conference in 2001. The accusation is wrong – the centralized system came from the Afghans themselves, stemming from the century-old practice of Afghan rulers, and readily accepted by the Loya Jirga. But the point remains true that Afghanistan has one of the most highly centralized systems of government in the world. Provincial governments are not independent governments, like U.S. states, but implementing agencies of Kabul. Provincial councils are advisory, not legislative, bodies. Provincial governors and district chiefs are appointed by the president, not elected by the people.  Provincial and district police chiefs are also appointed by the president, not by governors. That makes the President personally responsible for hiring and firing every governor and police chief in 34 provinces and nearly 400 districts nation-wide.

The centralization is almost completely unsuitable to Afghanistan’s culture, economy, and society.  According to Thomas Barfield’s magisterial book, Afghanistan:  A Political and Cultural History (arguably the most intelligent thing written on Afghanistan in a decade), the Afghan government has always claimed centralized powers, but has been most successful when it exercises those powers sparingly, or in cooperation with local elites like tribal elders and landowners.  Efforts to use centralized government to compel social change tended to provoke resistance, as it did under the reign of the modernizing king Amanullah Khan (1919-1929), who was overthrown by a coalition of rural tribes and conservative mullahs; the communizing efforts of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (1978-1989); and the Islamizing efforts to the Taliban (1994-2001), the two most recent of which sparked civil war. 

Despite the potential lessons of that history, the ten-year reign of Hamid Karzai looks more like Amanullah in his efforts to centralize power and push social reform, than that of Zahir Shah (1933-73), who took a more relaxed approach to the provinces and whose rule was marked by relative stability.  Devolving power, for example by making governors elected and giving them the power of appointments in their province, giving provincial councils legislative power, and enabling provinces to levy their own taxes would bring the formal government into closer alignment with the informal practices that worked in the past.

II.                 Adjust the electoral calendar 

Afghanistan’s political dysfunction gained a new complication in 2004 when the nascent Afghan government and the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) first decided to separate presidential and legislative elections. They were supposed to be held simultaneously under the original Bonn Agreement, but the latter were delayed a year because of logistical difficulties.  That immediately saddled Afghanistan with the burden of hosting not one, but two expensive national elections every five years. The 2004 election and voter registration drive cost in the neighborhood of $200 million; the decision to separate the elections simply doubled the cost of Afghan democracy and delayed the day Afghanistan could pay for its own government. 

The first round of split elections in 2004 and 2005 were relatively successful: Afghans turned out to vote in large numbers and the results were widely accepted. The success masked a deeper problem, however:  the elections were not held by the Afghan government. The international community, primarily the United States, paid the entire cost of the elections. And the U.N. administered the elections through the Joint Electoral Management Body (JEMB), a hybrid U.N.-Afghan organization in which the international community could ensure the elections did not fail.

The weaknesses were exposed by the second round of elections in 2009 and 2010, which the U.N. turned over to the Afghan government to administer.  The elections were notoriously marred by logistical problems, fraud, and low turnout. Although the Afghan Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) took the accusations of fraud seriously, launched a credible investigation, and eventually disqualified over 1 million votes (facts almost always overlooked by critics of the Afghan government) it is nonetheless true that that the elections were a disaster for the legitimacy of the Afghan government and the Karzai administration.  The international community’s and the Afghan people’s disenchantment with Karzai accelerated dramatically after 2009.

III.               Change the voting system

Afghanistan’s political crisis is not simply a matter of over-centralization, expensive elections, and fraud. It also stems from the absence of the one institution that is essential for the basic functioning of any democracy: political parties. As any political scientist will argue, political parties are essential for aggregating and articulating voters’ grievances and demands, translating them into a political agenda, mediating political participation, moderating extremism, and linking citizens to their government.  Without political parties, democracy cannot thrive.

Political parties exist in Afghanistan, technically.  But they play no role in the political system, thanks to the (frankly) bizarre voting system that President Karzai settled on in the Electoral Law in May 2004. The system, called the single non-transferable vote (SNTV), is used almost nowhere else in the world.  Just three other states (Jordan, Indonesia, and Thailand) use versions of it for part or all of their legislative elections. The reason is that it is blatantly undemocratic and hostile to political parties.

In a normal parliamentary system, seats are allocated to parties in proportion to their share of the vote: if a party wins 35 percent of the vote, it is awarded 35 percent of seats.  In the SNTV system, by contrast, the individual who wins the most votes in a given constituency is awarded the first seat; the candidate with the second-highest vote tally is awarded the next seat, and so on down the line until all seats are awarded. Regardless of how many votes the candidate wins, he is awarded one seat. In theory, the top candidate could win 90 percent of the vote and win one seat, while the fifth-place candidate might win two percent of the vote, and also win one seat. 

The result is obviously undemocratic, but it also results in a highly fractured legislature composed of a few extremely popular, well-known (or feared) candidates with an independent political power base – the first-place finishers in each province – and scores of unknown, often extremist candidates who have no connections or loyalties to established political groupings.  Political parties have no entry point into this system, and so play almost no role in Afghan political life. Without parties, there is nothing to structure debate or formulate competing agendas, and the result is a fragmented, disorganized branch. Americans have grown jaded about the U.S. Congress, but it is a well-oiled machine compared to the Afghan legislature.

IV.               Invite the Taliban to form a political party

Counterinsurgency is competitive state-building. The counterinsurgent must build a government that is more attractive to the people than what the insurgents offer. Kabul will not win a counterinsurgency against the Taliban with a government that is distant, over-centralized, disconnected from the population, and in which the only opportunities for participation are periodic elections that are too expensive to succeed and marred by fraud.

But most importantly, Kabul will not end the war and stabilize Afghanistan until the insurgents and the constituency they represent believe they have an opportunity to participate in Afghanistan’s political life. Afghanistan needs a Taliban political party.

The Taliban were the only faction not represented at the original Bonn Conference.  That is their fault: they were still actively fighting a shooting war against the Northern Alliance up until the day after the conference closed, and they almost certainly would not have accepted an invitation to participate if one had been extended. Regardless, the Taliban do have a constituency, and represent a view of Afghan political life that a small minority of Deobandi Pashtuns still find compelling. Their exclusion from Afghan life feeds resentment, and gives the insurgents a potent narrative with which to sell their rebellion. Karzai knows that, which is why he has consistently and aggressively sought to reach out to the Taliban ever since his 2004 inauguration. 

The Taliban as a whole are not going to surrender, lay down their arms, and peacefully convert into a political party.  The leaders, if no one else, are true believers in their brutal theocratic system, in which elections and compromise have no place. But the average Taliban foot soldier is probably more flexible in his commitments, so long as he believes he is secure and respected.  Holding talks with the Taliban and creating a way for them to participate in Afghan political life will not end the insurgency, but it can weaken the movement, sow disarray in their ranks, incentivize defections, and bolster Kabul’s legitimacy. Reconciliation with some Taliban could be a potent weapon in the counterinsurgency campaign.

V.                 Convene a Loya Jirga

Each of these problems – centralization, the disjointed electoral calendar, the wonky voting system and weak political parties, the exclusion of the Taliban – exacerbates the others.  The weakness of parties make it hard for an authentic local voice to be heard in Kabul, while the over-centralization gives Kabul little incentive to seek such a voice out. The electoral calendar has driven the cost of elections up, while fraud and corruption is making the international community ever more skeptical about providing the money necessary to keep the democratic charade going. The exclusion of the Taliban fuels the insurgency, but Kabul’s incompetence and political paralysis cripple its own counterinsurgency efforts, and weakens the will of its international backers. Under these circumstances, new elections in 2014 and 2015 offer nothing good for Afghanistan or the international community.

Afghanistan has a mechanism for dealing with the "supreme interests of the country":  the Loya Jirga. The Loya Jirga, a grand council of elders, is the supreme authority in Afghanistan, higher than any branch of government and the constitution itself. It is perfectly legal and constitutional:  Chapter Six of the Afghan Constitution describes the Jirga and its powers.  It is also a relatively democratic gathering, consisting of the National Assembly and chairmen of provincial and district councils, almost all of whom are elected (only one-third of the upper house of the Assembly are appointed by the President). The Afghans held an Emergency Loya Jirga in 2002 to ratify the Bonn Agreement, and a Constitutional Loya Jirga in 2003-4 to ratify the new constitution. Karzai has called "mini" loya jirgas in the years since to ratify specific decisions or agreements, including the U.S.-Afghan Strategic Partnership in 2005.

Many of the political changes needed would not even require constitutional amendments. Chapter Eight of the Afghan Constitution actually mandates that the government "delegate certain authorities to local administration units for the purpose of expediting and promoting economic, social, and cultural affairs, and increasing the participation of people in the development of the nation." The President’s power to appoint governors and police chiefs is nowhere mentioned in the constitution.  The voting system was created by statute, not by the Constitution. Changing the Afghan political system to be more decentralized, more democratic, and more responsive to the people could probably be accomplished even without the two-thirds vote of a Jirga required for constitutional amendments.

But the biggest potential benefit of the Jirga would be the inclusion of Taliban representatives.  The Jirga could itself be an important medium in the ongoing efforts to hold talks with the insurgency. Kabul would have to be flexible about the Jirga’s composition – the Constitution does not exactly have a clause about representatives from an active rebellion sitting in on a Jirga. But there are ways to skirt this, for example by allowing Taliban "observers" to attend without voting rights or, even better, through an understanding that district council representatives from southern provinces would be speaking for the Taliban. Regardless of the modality, the presence of Taliban spokesmen or their proxies would be an important symbolic step in the effort to incorporate willing Taliban into Afghan political life, catalyze talks with the insurgents, prompt defections, split the insurgency, and edge closer to peace.

A Loya Jirga in 2014 would be a more cost-effective use of international money.  More elections at this point will accomplish little to stabilize Afghanistan or bolster Kabul’s legitimacy.  A Jirga, by contrast, has a greater chance of being seen as legitimate and accomplishing something worthwhile. An election will only pick the next person to head the corrupt and incompetent administration in Kabul. A Jirga, by contrast, would be empowered to tackle the full range of problems that plague Afghanistan’s political system.  Elections, held just as the international military presence is winding down, would be a dangerous nation-wide event for which security would be a major challenge. A Jirga, by contrast, would be a smaller, easier affair to secure.

Of course, a Jirga would be unwieldy and unpredictable. The international community would not be able to control it. Even with the substantial aid international donors continue to give Afghanistan, the international community has much less leverage over the course of events in Afghanistan than it did in 2001-2. But that is probably a good thing. The heavy international hand guiding events in Afghanistan ten years ago was perhaps necessary, but it was also abnormal. A new Jirga, this time under unquestioned Afghan leadership, could be the step needed to restart normal Afghan political life.

Dr. Paul D. Miller is an Assistant Professor of International Security Studies at the National Defense University’s College of International Security Affairs. The views expressed here are his own, and do not reflect those of the U.S. government.

Paul D. Miller is a professor of the practice of international affairs at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He served as director for Afghanistan and Pakistan on the U.S. National Security Council staff from 2007 through 2009. Twitter: @PaulDMiller2 ‏

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