Originally posted December 2009

The continuing controversy about the fairness, or lack thereof, in the conduct of the Afghan presidential election reflects the very high stakes involved. It is understandable that the Western countries which sustain the Kabul regime would want to demonstrate to their citizens that the casualties suffered by their forces are a worthy cause. But why would the Afghan political class invest so much of its resources and credibility in an election to an office that is very often described derisively in Western media as the “Mayor of Kabul”? The basic premise of this essay is that the post-Taliban Afghan government is seen as legitimate in the eyes of the Afghans; however, its lack of credibility across a host of fields, including in delivering justice, in its patronage of the corrupt and the discredited, in its failure to deliver on economic growth, and its perceived lack of inclusiveness has allowed the insurgency to create instability in the country.[1]

The Afghan political scene has been dominated by protracted maneuvering, particularly since the enacting of the new Constitution. With the elections to the National Assembly and its inauguration in December 2005, following the presidential election of a year earlier, President Hamid Karzai got an opportunity to reshape his Cabinet. Even though he narrowly failed to get his candidate elected as the Speaker of the Lower House (Wolesi Jirga), and a number of his candidates for ministers were rejected by the Wolesi Jirga in the first round, Karzai managed to create a new team, which was a mix of technocrats, regional strong men who had to be moved out of their areas, and political lightweights of the largest ethnic minority, the Tajiks. Still, the erstwhile Northern Alliance seemed to be disproportionately represented in the cabinet. In fact, its heavyweights, the Panjsheri Tajiks of Massoud’s Shura-i-Nazar, had been sidelined one by one, and other regional strongmen such as the “Amir of Herat” Ismail Khan and the unquestioned leader of the Uzbeks, Abdul Rashid Dostum, had been moved to Kabul and their respective “regimes” were continuously squeezed by Kabul’s representatives in their areas. Since then, there has been no stable state of affairs. There was an attempt to create an alternate political grouping, the United National Front, which initially drew anti-Karzai forces from the opposition as well as within the government and which articulated a more federal approach to governance. This, however, fell apart as a result of Karzai’s abilities to “buy” allegiances of important individuals through offers of office, patronage, and half carried out threats of prosecution and exile, sometimes using a combination of approaches for the same individual.

The distortions in the election process, starting with large-scale irregularities in the registration of voters, and subsequent efforts at determining election results using fraudulent means have been covered extensively in media reports; any outcome achieved, even if broadly in line with actual public support, is unlikely to be acceptable not just to the losers but also to civil society and external observers. There have been allegations of ballot stuffing in the Pashtun-dominated south and east, where insecurity prevented normal election activities and where Karzai draws his support, as well as in parts of the north (though on a much smaller scale), such as Balkh province, where the local administration is backing the main opposition candidate, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah.

The viciousness of the Afghan electoral process is inexplicable if one looks at the totality of budgetary resources and discretion available to the Afghan government. Of the $2 billion in annual recurrent and development expenditure of the Afghan government, about two-thirds is externally funded.[2] The foreign-funded component — particularly the money which is routed through the multi-donor-funded, World Bank-administered Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund (ARTF), as well as direct assistance from the World Bank and Asian Development Bank and from bilateral donors — is closely monitored and presumably subject to international standards of audit. While there are reported leakages, mainly from payment of salaries to policemen and (much less so) to teachers, the amounts involved hardly merit the stakes apparent in the Presidential race.

Similarly, the international partners of the Afghan government have constantly complained about the increased level of corruption in the Afghan public sector and the apparent inability of the state to confront it. In fact, the top leadership is often accused of complicity in this, particularly in the appointment of unqualified, and even criminal, elements to key government positions in the provinces. Reports of substantial money changing hands in the appointment of provincial heads of police and even of district administrators and district chiefs of police are quite common, and have been the subject of a number of evaluation studies. At the same time, critics say that the writ of the government does not run beyond Kabul, and that the countryside is under the control of local “warlords.” And yet, many of these same “warlords,” dependent on their takings from the drug industry, extortion, and kidnapping, are the ones who pay to be appointed government functionaries at the provincial and district level. Superficially, it is not clear why a local strongman in unchallenged control of an area would agree to share his loot with various government notables and even minions in Kabul — especially since Kabul cannot budge him.

The answer lies in the need for legitimacy. De facto power can only take an individual so far. And this is where Kabul comes in. Only the government led by the President can give the mantle of legitimacy to the strongest of power entrepreneurs. This is what makes corruption in the system endemic. Taking a loan to pay a bribe to buy an office is seen as an investment, and government appointments in an economically stagnant society are the only means of social advancement. Part of the reason why Western observers often mistake the latent legitimacy that control over Kabul, or of the seals of government, gives any regime is that the structure and role of government in Afghanistan is so different from what they are used to. On the one hand, a society like Afghanistan has a broad array of power systems operating, with de jure systems necessarily limited in their scope largely because of reasons of history, geography, social factors, and recently, the predominance of the war economy. On the other hand, the yearning for stability that arises from such dynamic situations and the social upheaval that has occurred as a result of over a century of government efforts at “fragmenting” society, and the experience of one-fourth of Afghans in refugee camps, has meant that only a central core of the Afghan nation is seen as legitimate and needed to restore order and stability.

It is this legitimacy and power of distributing patronage, even in situations where government’s actual control is nebulous, that makes the conduct of free and fair elections so critical for Afghanistan’s future. For while the recipes for state building should be discussed in the light of what has failed and succeeded, once legitimacy is lost, it will be near impossible to regain.

Assuming that Afghanistan is able to complete the electoral process in a satisfactory manner, and the winner is seen as largely legitimate, it allows the Afghan political system and its international partners space to rectify the failure of the Afghan state to deliver justice, security, and social and economic services. This is not just a technical exercise implying improved public sector capacity, better public finance systems, or physical infrastructure, but an exercise in political economy that takes into account Afghanistan’s need for a legitimate central core with the genuine involvement of local communities in matters of concern to them, best mediated through multiple tiers of democratically elected representative bodies.

This dispersion of power within a national framework could help in pushing through important public administration reforms that are the minimum required to improve service delivery. But this would need to be backed by improved incentive structures and by the provision of minimum physical infrastructure. The scaling up of the community-based National Solidarity Program to higher levels of spatial agglomeration could help initiate sustainable economic growth at the district and provincial level. Many impediments to private sector-led growth have been identified. While exogenous factors such as insecurity are a larger issue, government and its partners should proactively remove microeconomic impediments. The police must be seen as an agency that upholds public order, and its counterinsurgency role must be reduced even as the Afghan National Army is built up. Afghans must be supported in the important job of state building, so that the window of legitimacy that is available is not lost but rather used to allow a more secure Afghanistan to develop.

[1]. The foreign element in the growth and sustenance of the insurgency is deliberately left out, as it does not effect the logic of why the government suffers from loss of credibility.


[2]. The overwhelming amount of external development assistance bypasses the government system, and while this has implications for government credibility and even legitimacy, it is not something that Afghan politicos can fight over.