Afghanistan’s Gray Future

It's Hamid Karzai's country now, and not everything is black and white.

Ralph Orlowski/Getty Images
Ralph Orlowski/Getty Images
Ralph Orlowski/Getty Images

In projecting Afghanistan's future, it's misleading to hold a mirror to its troubled past. Many pundits assume Afghanistan will disintegrate upon the last combat soldier's departure in 2014 -- that Afghans themselves are devoid of the will to construct, better suited to blowing it all up. The future of the country, though, is neither black nor white. The truth is that Afghanistan has been transformed since 2001, rendering responsible politics a chance to define its outlook.

In projecting Afghanistan’s future, it’s misleading to hold a mirror to its troubled past. Many pundits assume Afghanistan will disintegrate upon the last combat soldier’s departure in 2014 — that Afghans themselves are devoid of the will to construct, better suited to blowing it all up. The future of the country, though, is neither black nor white. The truth is that Afghanistan has been transformed since 2001, rendering responsible politics a chance to define its outlook.

Alarmists about Afghanistan’s future paint two likely scenarios: civil war, or the forceful return of the Taliban. Neither of these scenarios ring true. Even more importantly, they are predicted on perverse detachment from the realities on the ground, and colored by a view where external factors determine Afghanistan’s course. More essential than what Washington or Brussels decides is whether Afghan politicians will manage to preserve and advance political stability through the constitutional order or not. And fundamentally, the person with the most influence over the extension and legitimacy of the system — or the irresponsible undermining of it — is President Hamid Karzai.

Powers amassed in the office of the presidency since 2004 have transformed Karzai from being a conciliator among different contentious factions (that saw him as harmless back in 2001) to a Machiavellian manipulator of his political competitors and international supporters. Karzai’s public clashes with the U.S. Embassy during the Bush administration and his pronounced detachment from the Obama White House have made clear the diminished U.S. political leverage in Afghanistan. Indeed, the Afghan president has increasingly turned to local strongmen as a source of power, thereby embedding the chaotic mix of patronage and populism as the essence of politics in Afghanistan. In Afghan politics, real power is the prize, but no single major person or group in the country — other than the nihilistic Taliban and former civil-war fighter Gulbudin Hekmatyar — is pursuing it with overt force and violence. And that’s a step in the right direction.

Absent parties and durable groupings, Afghan politics can seem chaotic and unpredictable. Yet the past eight years of the constitutional order offers evidence that when conflicts arise, politics moderate. In the heat of the 2009 presidential elections, Atta Mohammad Noor — a powerful supporter of Abdullah Abdullah, the leading opposition candidate — entered into an ugly public conflict with Hanif Atmar, then the minister of interior and a Karzai loyalist. Tensions heightened, and concerns about violent clashes between Noor and the government were real. The framework governing politics in the country, and the conduct of politicians were as yet untested — any clash was expected to be hard to contain. Yet, just as the tension reached a simmer, so did the pursuit of a negotiated end to the brawl. Politics prevailed over the resort to force. Noor remained unapologetic for his support of the opposition, but the government recognized his right to stay within the system and yet not necessarily pledge full loyalty to the person heading it.

In the 2010 parliamentary elections, the regional and provincial strongmen who had once opted to be above the law or outside the frames of democratic institutions actually canvassed for seats. Now, they have a multitude of reasons to invest in the constitutional order: from access to power and prestige, to immunity and business. They are seeking all these perks through civilian platforms, as opposed to the sheer force or numbers of their guns and guys. The encouraging factor is that if the nascent constitutional order has grown to offer all these perks to strongmen, it should someday be able to regulate them too.

Challenges to order, nonetheless, abound. Semi-organized militias and paramilitary outfits have increased in the past two years — under different labels such as the Afghan Local Police, Critical Infrastructure Police, and other ambiguous formations outside the standard law and order institutions. Similarly, some local officials have extended official and unofficial support to the mobilization of armed groups in some districts of provinces such as Kunduz and Baghlan. With a radius of influence limited to districts, their return to the scene, much contrary to arguments flashed out most recently in a New Yorker article by Dexter Filkins and echoed by other commentators, is not a sure sign of any looming civil war.

Civil wars do not erupt out of clashes at the provincial or district levels, but rather when the settlement for control or share of power at the center fails to offer the needed flexibility or satisfaction to most parties concerned. The much-dreaded 1992-1996 civil war in Afghanistan was not a product of any district level clashes. In fact, the trigger and sustainer of the war was violent scuffle over leadership and key posts in the central government, of course with the meddling regional forces — in particular, Iran and Pakistan — through the allegiances of their proxies developed in the 1980s.

But the dominant feature of the post-2001 government has been its flexibility — even ingenuity — in ensuring everyone gets a piece of the pie. Even those who are very overtly opposed to the leadership of the country either have a direct share of the system, or they have immediate family members or group loyalists in high government positions. For example, Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum is vocally anti-Karzai, but continues to enjoy a generous salary as the ceremonial chief of staff to the supreme commander of the Armed Forces. Former Vice President Ahmad Zia Masood is mobilizing as opposition to Karzai, yet his brother-in-law Salahudin Rabbani chairs the government’s High Peace Council. Such is the settlement that even loyalists of the insurgent leader Gulbudin Hekmatyar also enjoy a major portion of power in Kabul and provinces. They may be using the violent capabilities of Hekmatyar as a bargaining tool, but they are unlikely to surrender all the privileges they currently enjoy to go to war with other factions.

Afghanistan’s politics of patronage — where access to influence and key resources are doled out — also works against the eruption of an all out civil war. This is how those at the center keep their networks at the periphery happy: either through government appointments, official sanctioning of revenue streams, or simply by sending a share of their own extorts out. And those in the periphery do the reverse. Often, they send shares of their extracts and extorts to patrons at the regional or central hubs. In the long term, these dynamics are highly undesirable for accountable and responsive governance, but the liquidity of these patronage networks at least insure that interests get negotiated and clashes get averted. Of course, the downside is that the Afghanistan of today does not work fairly for all of society. Patronage may not help the public, but it is working for most of the political class.

This is not to say that Afghanistan is fully stable, but given the checks and balances applied by the constitutional order and patronage politics on potentially warring factions, only external pressures can really be seen as threatening its stability and endurance. The Taliban are certainly the main threat, but they increasingly do not pose an existential challenge to the extension or stability of the constitutional order, for they have failed to offer a responsive alternative to the public, and the perception of their cohesiveness is also diminishing.

* * *

Pundits and politicians argue that with the drawdown of foreign forces in 2014, the Taliban will be unstoppable. Their frame of reference for this pessimism is the Taliban’s awe-inspiring march across the country in the 1990s, when within three years of their formation they had around 90 percent of the country in their control. The political and economic landscape of Afghanistan today makes the Taliban’s cruise across the country simply fantastical. In 1996, the Taliban won control of Jalalabad — the supply route to Kabul, and the commercial and population center of eastern Afghanistan — by bribing the local forces in the region in cash (reportedly at the cost of $10 million), and a promise of safe passage. With the wealth and power that local actors around the country have amassed these days, though, the price for any such deal down the line has gone up exponentially. It is hard to imagine the current strategic actors in just the Jalalabad region striking any financial deal — unless the Taliban offer hundreds of millions of dollars, which is unrealistic given the economic strife of their principal paymasters in Pakistan.

When the Taliban first emerged on the political and military stage in the 1990s, they were an untested group, offering an exit from the chaos of commander rule. In the past 10 years, however, by resorting to brutal terrorist attacks and violently countering any efforts at development, the group has exhausted any public space it once had. Consider this: the Taliban have now operated twice longer as an insurgency than as a government. Their brand is now associated with the brutality of beheadings. This year, popular uprisings against them in the rural and urban areas of the country are a spreading reality. Urban Afghans have long seen that the Taliban represents regress, but rural Afghans increasingly recognize it too.

Battlefield realities further undermine any possibility of the Taliban’s forceful return. The insurgency has suffered massively over the past two years, in particular the ranks of its mid-level commanders. A targeted campaign by the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to kill and capture field commanders has weakened their capability and also sown mistrust among the leadership and field operations.

For years, the Taliban thrived on projecting a cohesive and committed image of their leadership — the inner circle around Mullah Omar. But 10 years on the run has ruptured the group’s leadership and invited desperate reactions by their patrons in Pakistan’s military establishment. In February 2010, the Taliban’s No. 2 and veteran figure Mullah Abdul Ghani Beradar was put behind bars in Pakistan, on charges of seeking a political deal with the Afghan government without the consent of Islamabad. Mullah Obaidullah Akhund, former defense minister of the Taliban, died in 2008 — arrested by Pakistan in 2006 upon U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney’s trip to the region. Mullah Agha Jan Muhtasim, another senior figure, has all but defected to the Afghan government (he’s currently on government- sponsored treatment in Turkey for wounds he suffered in his hideout in Pakistan). Members of the Haqqani family have been targeted by drone strikes, and other influential figures of the early inner circle of the group — such as Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Usmani and Mullah Dadullah — have perished on the battlefield. Returning to power would be a challenging feat for a group that’s finding it increasingly difficult to ensure the survival or loyalty of its core.

In short, projecting that there will be a full return of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan is as lazy as the alarms about civil war. At best, the Taliban have turned into a terrorist outfit that enjoys a foreign sanctuary but is finding it hard to win any decisive battle or territory within Afghanistan. This is not to say that the Taliban and other insurgent groups are not strategic factors in defining Afghanistan’s trajectory any longer. They still have the support of power elements in Pakistan, and a narrative that’s exploitive of the weaknesses of the post-2001 constitutional order: dependency on foreign forces, corruption, and absence of justice.

The road ahead, however, is not so much about what particular card the Taliban pull, or spectacular attack they manage to organize. But rather whether the constitutional order in Afghanistan overcomes the greatest test to its viability and endurance on the tenth anniversary of its establishment: the 2014 elections. Whether the elections are a course correction and return a sense of justice to the political narrative of building a new Afghanistan depends largely on the choices of President Karzai in the less than 18 months leading up to the 2014 transfer of power.

* * *

For the first time in Afghanistan’s history, an elected leader is set to finish his allotted time in office. For any new democracy, the major test is not so much on whether the initial elections are flaw and fraud free — but whether future elections emerge as the only game in town for access to power. Afghanistan’s 2009 presidential elections were marred with questionable conducts, despite a weak opposition to Karzai, which assured him victory. The field for 2014, however, is far more open — which should inject energy into the political space, if Karzai doesn’t manipulate the process.

The drawback is that Afghanistan’s 2004 constitution conglomerates an unusual number of authorities and expectations into the office of the president. It was built this way to survive a fractured political space, with an all-powerful head of state meant to unify and centralize. It has delivered on both accounts, but now President Karzai holds the keys to ensuring stability and advance of the constitutional order, or undoing its gradually acquired legitimacy.

When talking of the looming transfer of power, Karzai has indicated that he sees his role as the selector of a deserving successor. Most recently, when asked by Time magazine on who might replace him, he responded saying: "I am busy working on this question, this is one of my jobs, one of my perhaps most important responsibilities." He has talked of finding the right person, as opposed to setting the fair conditions for the right person to emerge. But in doing so, Karzai is misreading a script he helped write: Afghanistan is a democracy where the public elects successors, not the sitting president. And having intentionally avoided organizing the political space into parties or blocs, he is not the leader of any party to steer toward a particular candidate.

The confusion in Karzai’s approach to the transfer of power in 2014 is the biggest risk to political stability. In Afghan elections, access to state machinery in elections is decisive. Karzai’s choice to select a successor and then opt for electioneering is dangerous because it undermines any chance of a level playing field, and erodes the possibility of energetic political campaigns ahead of 2014. Both the splintered opposition and the establishment, comprised of multiple blocs of ambitious politicians, are watching what Karzai chooses to do, or whom he chooses to endorse.

Given his immense powers, Karzai can choose to fiddle with political competition by continuing the intrigue around who is going to be his chosen successor in the 2014 race. Some even speculate that perhaps motivated by concerns about personal and family security — not to mention impunity for associates accused of abuse and corruption — President Karzai may tweak or undo democratic processes. Up until now, he has vehemently denied considering anything but stepping down in 2014. The reality is that allowing an irresponsible transfer of power with questionable legitimacy will further political instability, and thus undo the very cause of security and impunity that may steer the sinister option forward.

* * *

A more audacious option exists. Karzai’s should decide to stay above it all, emerging as the overseer of an election among two powerful tickets, neither of which he endorses. Such an approach will be truly in line with his desired image of a man above factional interests or group loyalties. He helped create patronage networks that now filter violent scuffle over power, and the networks close to him may tempt him to play the decider. But it is time to inject doses of predictability in Afghan politics, and Karzai is powerfully placed to direct the future course of Afghan politics towards representative, responsive agendas and groupings.

If Karzai chooses to set a competitive stage and assume the role of a neutral statesman, it’s likely that constructive politics will come of it. Potential candidates will have to appeal to and mobilize a population that is extremely young (nearly 70 percent of Afghans are under 25) and has come of age in a period of relative stability. The emerging generation of Afghans is a product of a more connected and open society — free of ideological fragmentations, and influenced by the social and political openings of the past 10 years. Steering the political space to respond to this constituency is the only way of suffocating the Taliban’s operating space and returning Afghanistan to a constructive course.

For many years, President Hamid Karzai personified the break from the harsh past — and for a while emerged as an icon of the national will to leave Afghanistan’s difficult past behind. Yet increasingly, he has strayed toward a confusing and a self-defeating path of courting extremists who don’t owe their power to him — thereby disillusioning many who had invested hopes in him, and voted for him in overwhelming numbers in 2004. The choice to return to the role of senior statesman steering the country to modernization will redeem him.

The irony of the past decade is how Karzai, a man once perceived to have limited influence in the country, has metamorphosed — through sheer tactical genius and the space offered by a weak opposition — into the single most decisive actor in determining whether Afghanistan will become politically stable, or the constitutional order will go obsolete. The bigwigs at the NATO planning tables or in the power corridors of Washington may think their decisions determine Afghanistan’s future, but the ball is squarely in Karzai’s court.

Haseeb Humayoon is a partner at the Kabul-based advisory firm QARA Consulting, Inc.

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