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The South Asia Channel

How Ghani Learned to Play the Tribal Game

In his exit interview before leaving office, Afghan President Hamid Karzai was asked why his leadership style focused so much on cultivating personal relations with tribal and customary leaders throughout the country instead of governance through state institutions. Karzai said that traditional forms of local representation were "closer" to people than the state. Instead of ...


In his exit interview before leaving office, Afghan President Hamid Karzai was asked why his leadership style focused so much on cultivating personal relations with tribal and customary leaders throughout the country instead of governance through state institutions. Karzai said that traditional forms of local representation were "closer" to people than the state. Instead of instilling his trust in the state –something he had asked of Afghan citizens — Karzai put his faith in traditional authorities, who proved more "honest" than those in his own government.

This admission by Karzai provides an alternative explanation as to why state-building efforts in Afghanistan appear to have failed and why,  more than a decade after coming to power, the Afghan people continue to mistrust their own government: because traditional authority was left in the cold and kept out of government quarters. This is despite consistent survey evidence indicating strong social support for such authority. If the president himself refuses to rely on his officially appointed minions, then why should Afghan citizens?

Karzai is not alone in such an approach to politics. The ability to cultivate relations with communities through traditional authorities may play a key role in determining the outcome of the second round of the hotly contested 2014 presidential race held on June 5. In recent weeks, presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah leveled serious allegations of corruption against the Karzai administration, accusing the Independent Elections Commission (IEC) of spearheading a ballot stuffing campaign, calling the entire process "illegitimate." He also questioned reports of high voter turnout in the Pashtun heartland in Eastern regions believed to be sympathetic to his opponent, Ashraf Ghani.

There is little doubt that Ghani was able to mobilize Pashtuns in the East. Ghani claims he was able to do so by calling upon tribal leaders and mullahs to mobilize voters in their communities. For weeks before the second round of the presidential election, Ghani proudly touted the support of tribes. His twitter feed produced an endless stream of tribal "leaders" promising to deliver the votes of entire lineages.

Ghani took a page from Karzai’s playbook. While advertising himself as the technocrat who "wrote the book" on fixing failed states, encouraging donors to provide financial and technical support for his efforts to build western oriented civil society, he understood that the road to the Presidential Palace would only be found in the fruits of traditional authority. While he espoused a progressive vision of Afghanistan to international audiences, he sought to strengthen his appeal to ethnic and tribal voting blocs for domestic audiences. Ghani saw that he needed to appeal to tribal groups he believed would be most likely to support his candidacy, but this could only be done by relying on authority Afghans feel to be largely legitimate: tribal and customary authorities.  

From the extensive fieldwork I have done throughout rural Afghanistan, customary authority remains the only legitimate governance in many communities. In the countryside, even government officials rely heavily on such authority. Although the U.S. military embraced customary authority in its counterinsurgency effort, the donor community largely eschewed it — choosing to build new community development councils or government institutions in its stead.  Some contended that such leadership was no longer important, as it had withered away during decades of conflict, while contradictory but similarly sanguine arguments came from those who saw the durability of such authority as an impediment to human rights and gender equality. Although imperfect and far from a panacea, such authority does remain largely respected by most citizens.

Ironically, Ghani spent the past decade touting a narrative very different from the one that promoted these traditional norms. He spoke frequently of the transformation of Afghan society into something more modern, boasting the success of the National Solidarity Program, a widely touted donor-supported project that was supposed to provide Afghans with a "democratically elected alternative to traditional leadership" he had a role in designing. As a rational politician looking to foment electoral gains, Ghani had no qualms following Karzai’s lead and organizing tribal groups and religious leaders — further cementing their importance — when he needed them most. 

As savvy politicians, Ghani and Karzai demonstrated a talent to speak to multiple audiences with contradictory messages: appealing to the international community on the importance of state building, while signaling the continued importance of traditional authority to domestic audiences.  

The question for policy makers, then, is: How can such authority be channeled into the state? More urgently, can such authority play a role in resolving the current quagmire? Understanding the power of informal politics has implications for how the international community approaches potential solutions to the current electoral impasse.

First, if it has not already, the international community must quickly recognize that the current electoral process, as governed by the IEC, is irretrievably broken. No amount of vote recounting or auditing can create a clean outcome of what is emerging as a corrupt second round. Focusing on the current process only deepens division and blame in society.

Second, a new process must emerge that both the political elite can accept and that the Afghan people can support and feel that their voices have been counted. Given the lack of a neutral domestic body, the international community, likely led by the U.N., should take a more active role in mediating the dispute. It is already taking a lead role hearing the grievances of both candidates. After all, it is the international community that made free and fair elections such an important benchmark for continued support to the country. Both Abdullah and Ghani have lauded the role of international organizations in Afghanistan. As a technocrat, Ghani supported the role of international organizations and spent most of his career working for them. If Ghani wishes to avert the kind of violence he has spent entire career decrying, he should yield to such a process.

A mediated solution could take many forms: U.N. oversight of a vote audit and recount, mandating new elections in contested provinces, or even brokering a power sharing government between Abduallah and Ghani.

Third, any mediated solution must face the Afghan citizens, who fulfilled their obligation by voting in large numbers. In the absence of a complete redo of the elections, the voices of the people could be heard through a more representative body such as a Loya Jirga. This is not far-fetched: it would be a similar process to the emergency Loya Jirga convened to affirm outcome of the Bonn Process in 2002. It could call upon traditional leaders as well as the nascent civil society groups in urban areas to affirm both the process and the outcome. Such councils are not rubber stamps: President Karzai was at odds with a 2013 Loya Jirga he convened to debate the Bilateral Security Agreement.

Democracy inevitably produces winners and losers. But will about half of the Afghan electorate tolerate loss under suspicious circumstances? A consensus driven process, such as a Loya Jirga, can help establish the legitimacy of the new governing while serving to heal rifts emerging from a very divisive process. Bringing citizens together in such a manner may help bring society back together.

A broader lesson here for the international community is that in Afghanistan and elsewhere it must find ways to deal with forms of authority that do not comport with western ideals. Despite billions of dollars spent to promote democratic elections throughout the world, political legitimacy still comes in many shapes and sizes. The actions of Afghanistan’s politicians clearly indicate that traditional authority remains the country’s political lifeblood. This is not unique to Afghanistan, but a common conundrum facing Libya, Iraq, Pakistan, and other tribally organized societies throughout the Muslim world. 

A mediated solution ratified with the blessing of Afghan traditional authority does not mean that Afghanistan is not ready for democracy. It simply illustrates the problems of government corruption that have been chronicled for years. The international community cannot continue to encourage Afghans to simply obey a process that many perceive to be unjust. Together with successful third-party mediation, the traditional authority that candidates have recognized as so important in their campaigns can be harnessed to help solve one of the country’s biggest political messes.

Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili is Assistant Professor of International Development at the Graduate School of Public and international Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. She’s completed a book, Informal Order and the State, based on extensive ethnographic fieldwork in rural Afghanistan. She has been working on Afghanistan and Central Asia for the past fifteen years as both an academic and policymaker. 

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