Saving Afghanistan

It can be done, but only if the international community truly invests in democracy.

SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images)
SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images)

In the year 2000, well before the tragic Sept. 11 attacks on the United States and the subsequent liberation of Afghanistan, a secret meeting took place in northern Afghanistan, one of the few areas not conquered by the Taliban. A man named Hamid Karzai, as part of a delegation representing the former king of Afghanistan, flew in to meet Ahmad Shah Massoud, leader of the anti-Taliban United Front, and me to discuss the future of the country.

Our conversation might have seemed presumptuous, focused as it was on outlining a post-Taliban government. We discussed plans to exert pressure on the government of Pakistan to halt its support for the Taliban, who were now despised by the Afghan people, achieve military gains in the resistance against the insurgency, create an interim Afghan administration, convene a constitutional loya jirga to approve a constitution, and lastly to call for elections based on a simple idea: One person equals one vote.

Following 9/11 and the global response, these ideas became the structure for the future Afghan government. But today, despite incredible amounts of blood and treasure and unprecedented support from the United States and the international community, Afghanistan is perceived as on the brink of collapse, with the shadow of the 2014 withdrawal date casting a pall on everything from soldier morale to the economy.

Despite the overwhelming list of challenges, however, from corruption to an economy dependent on foreign aid, Afghanistan can still experience a successful political transition in 2014. For this to happen, all the stakeholders involved must stop thinking strictly in terms of military means.

Afghanistan arrived at this point through a tragic combination of errors, some internal and some external. The initial mistake was to entrust President Karzai with the sacred duty of securing the fate of our embattled nation. His lack of faith in his fellow countrymen is perhaps best exemplified by his request that the CIA, even before he was officially inaugurated as president, provide bodyguards to protect him not from al Qaeda but from the Afghans who helped install him in power. Despite high hopes, he has rarely pursued local support for his policies and alienated many U.S. and international partners with his xenophobic pronouncements, thus tainting any opportunity for genuine leadership.

Karzai’s lack of trust led directly to the ill-conceived policy of disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration, best described as Iraqi-style de-Baathification but in practice targeted against those who had fought as U.S. allies against the Taliban. The end result was a power vacuum that pitted a government with limited resources and capability against a nascent but determined and foreign-supported insurgency. Former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf’s fateful decision to continue to view elements of the Taliban, and Islamic extremism more broadly, as a strategic asset for use in Afghanistan set the stage for the current conflict and fed the insecurity, while the United States became more focused on Iraq, Iran’s nuclear program, and the rise of China. 

Yet other obstacles to success in Afghanistan are much harder to quantify. The tolerance of the Afghan government and foreigners alike toward high-brow corruption has today become a significant threat to a stable Afghanistan, along with the Taliban. It would be a tragic mistake for the international community to conclude that democracy doesn’t work in Afghanistan, while the only thing that doesn’t work is democracy as Karzai’s government understands it. The Afghan government has done little to ensure that the institutions of democracy, from our parliament to our courts and civil society, are supported and nurtured. Instead, it has confused the Afghan people by being passive toward corruption and pursuing an inconsistent and ambivalent policy regarding reconciliation with the armed insurgency. As the current Afghan government has repeatedly made clear, a red line of reconciliation with the Taliban must be their acceptance of the Constitution — and Karzai needs to illustrate his own commitment to this same standard. No wonder Afghans feel no connection to this government and understand democracy to be code language for anarchy.

Because of these countless psychological and structural missteps, influential, democratically minded Afghans — and those who support them — must focus more sharply on a political transition, without which any "military transition" will ultimately be meaningless. And for a successful political transition, Afghanistan needs every country involved in its rebuilding effort to send a clear message to today’s Afghan leadership demanding a democratic transition of power based on the principles of free and fair elections. Instead of abandoning democracy because it hasn’t worked under a kleptocracy, Afghanistan and the international community must clean it up.

Can this be done in just over a year? Yes. The time until the 2014 elections must be used to implement procedures that support democracy. Our international partners, in particular the United States, should ensure the positioning of foreign observers to keep a clean tally of the votes. Karzai and the Afghan parliament should approve new voter registration procedures to ensure that every voter’s voice — new and old — is heard. Our parliament needs to mandate the vetting of all election officials who will oversee election centers, rather than accepting them as a result of presidential decree, as they are now. There needs to be an independent body to resolve all electoral disputes — an independent Electoral Complaints Commission whose members are selected transparently and with meaningful consultations among Afghan political opposition groups, parliament, civil society, and others.

Karzai must clearly illustrate his willingness both to step down when his constitutionally limited time is up and to promise not to interfere in the election process, addressing the top two concerns of the Kabul political elite. Taking into account our recent presidential and parliamentary elections in 2009 and 2010, state resources should not be used to influence the outcome of the elections.

The political transition, based entirely on credible and transparent elections, is of paramount importance because it will restore the Afghan people’s faith and sense of ownership in their government. Despite all the fraud and mismanagement in previous elections, it is, remarkably, not yet lost. And if the government obtains this mandate from the people, it can act with confidence on issues from dealing with the Taliban to stabilizing the economy and receiving long-term assistance from the West and the international community that will ensure Afghanistan’s security, stability, and prosperity. By playing a constructive role in facilitating necessary electoral reforms and overseeing a credible and legitimate transfer of power in 2014, Karzai can still take advantage of this unique opportunity and moment in Afghan history to be remembered as a reformist.

The structure of Afghanistan’s political process, which was discussed in that meeting in 2000, further implemented in the 2001 Bonn agreement, and painfully built over the past decade, is still the right one. But work remains on that central point — ensuring that every person gets the opportunity to choose his or her government. With a push from the international community, and in particular, the United States, to help Afghanistan conduct free and fair elections, Afghanistan can be saved — and move into the next decade from a position of strength. Together with our international partners, the Afghan nation has come a long way in our transition toward democracy and stability. We must march on forward.

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