The South Asia Channel

Afghanistan’s political crisis: A short-term solution

The Afghan political system is broken, just as the country finds itself juggling multiple political and security challenges. Among the most pressing is ensuring the transition of power from President Hamid Karzai to a capable successor by 2014. Getting this right will go a long way toward salvaging U.S.-led efforts over the past decade. Unfortunately, ...


The Afghan political system is broken, just as the country finds itself juggling multiple political and security challenges. Among the most pressing is ensuring the transition of power from President Hamid Karzai to a capable successor by 2014. Getting this right will go a long way toward salvaging U.S.-led efforts over the past decade. Unfortunately, with Kabul torn apart by infighting and factionalism, the prospects of succeeding are bleak.

The 2014 election has started to engender a new view of politics in Afghanistan under an incredibly curious public, the skeleton of democratic rule, and a vibrant, if not particularly well-trained media. Karzai has repeatedly stated that he will not seek another term in office and that he is looking to find a successor to stand for elections in two years’ time – one that would be acceptable to the Afghan people and tough with allies. Many names have been floated as possible candidates, ranging from Karzai’s own brother to some of his close aides and confidantes.  While questions remain about what Karzai will actually do, it is clear that a failure to hold free and fair elections could easily contribute to further unrest across the country. If President Karzai handpicks a successor, it will most likely compromise the legitimacy of that succession. A disputed leadership could lead to Afghanistan’s security forces splintering along ethnic lines, a situation that other regional actors might exploit for their own interests.

This dismal scenario is avoidable. But it would require Afghan leaders – irrespective of their political and ethnic affiliation – including President Karzai, to put aside their perceived differences, compromise, and settle on two or three vetted candidates acceptable to all sides ahead of the election. As it is said, "politics makes strange bedfellows," so the incentive for Afghan leaders to come together and compromise, however perverse it may appear, should be quite clear: If doing it for the "good of the country" is not enough of an incentive, then not doing it directly puts at risk the power, money, and personal security these players have not deserved but largely enjoyed over the years. Over the long-term, Afghanistan needs issues-based political parties with viable candidates, but this goal would be impossible to pull off before the next elections. A compromise on a shortlist of presidential nominees would mark a real turning point that could also reduce the prospect of electoral fraud. However, the level of uncertainty that presently dominate opinions of Kabul’s politically influential proves that taking the necessary risks required for vetting and uniting over a handful of candidates very unlikely. The feasibility of this prospect is contingent as much upon the loyal opposition – including members of the erstwhile Northern Alliance – as upon Karzai himself.

In the absence of alternative mechanisms, one way of commanding greater political legitimacy would be the convening of a Loya Jirga. The Jirga – an old social institution representative of all Afghans often convened to resolve disputes or reach consensus on major events – could serve as a mechanism to vet and approve presidential nominees and also establish the ground rules for reconciliation with the Taliban.  The delegates to the Jirga must be chosen through district-level elections – similar to the Constitutional Loya Jirga (CLJ) that ratified the new Afghan Constitution in 2003 – and must include members of Afghanistan’s both lower and upper houses.  President Karzai was an unknown figure until the Loya Jirga settled on him as an interim leader in 2002. The unanimous support Karzai received from the Jirga for finalizing the recently signed U.S.-Afghanistan strategic partnership agreement is equally noteworthy.

The United States and its European partners have also earned a responsibility to ensure that the 2014 elections are credible and legitimate. However, the election clause embedded in the U.S.-Afghan strategic pact and reiterated in the recent Tokyo conference Declaration now directly impedes "interference" – by foreign governments in Afghan elections – specifically foreign embassies supporting one political candidate or party over another. One way to respect the agreement and still ensure free and fair elections would be to employ a robust independent international election monitoring and observers’ mission under the United Nation’s auspices and direct supervision. This will not only avoid violating the agreement but will also dismiss concerns of the United States’ so-called "kingmaker" or "Big Brother" role controlling internal matters in Afghanistan.

The lack of issues-based parties and candidates in Afghanistan, as noted above, is a major deterrent to the country’s long-term political development. At present, while Afghanistan’s electoral system clearly mandates voting for independent candidates and not political parties, there are still over 90 registered parties in the country. Nearly all of the parties carry a history of factional splits, ethnic politics and oft-changing alliances. Factions that do form alliances are often in search of a military advantage and not a "soft" political consensus. Most of the parties are small, lack sufficient resources and funding, and often pursue and promote factional and ethnic politics. Most importantly, the bulk of the parties in Afghanistan lack a systematic political role, a clear national vision and mandate, and thus most are largely useless.  Those candidates who do win seats in Afghan Parliament and the Provincial Councils are, for the most part, people with strong support from the grassroots, not political parties.

Nevertheless, political parties have shown progress in recent years. Many parties are fielding candidates and many candidates are now showing their affiliation to political parties.  The United States and the European allies must capitalize on this opportunity by making them credible political players. This can be done, among other things, by building their capacities through election training and education, providing them with necessary resources and skill sets: effective leadership, campaigning and fundraising skills through foreign exposures, study-tours and visits. Most importantly, the international community should educate them to work together by building healthy coalitions with an inclusive political dialogue and a pan-Afghan vision. Doing so will lay the foundation for Afghanistan’s long-term political development. In turn, the Afghan government must stipulate strict guidelines and set parameters for party registration to curtail the current unhealthy growth of parties.

At the end of the day, it all boils down to Afghan leaders and those politically engaged and influential taking responsibility for their own destiny. The support pledged by a number of foreign countries post-2014 will unquestionably help, but even that would require Afghanistan to have a viable and functioning government. While graft in Afghan bureaucracy has largely undermined the government’s legitimacy and its relations with international donors, and does need to be tackled, finding a short-term and realistic political consensus is more pressing and must be prioritized. The country’s current trajectory, however, provides little encouragement. A failure to compromise could easily plunge the country into a brutal chaos in a frenzy to mark personal territories reminiscent of the 1990s where the very unhealthy interests of these conflicting parties will be directly challenged. Before it is too late, Afghan elites must realize that it is time to come together and act.

Javid Ahmad is Program Coordinator with the Asia Program of the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Washington, DC. The views expressed here are his own.

Javid Ahmad, a South Asia analyst, is a graduate student at Jackson Institute for Global Affairs at Yale University. You can follow him on Twitter: @ahmadjavid. Twitter: @ahmadjavid

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