Originally posted December 2009

A hasty, fluid, and poorly conceived process of creating leadership in a post-war situation mainly provides the space for rich and powerful — mostly corrupt — individuals to prevail because their roles, styles, and abilities overshadow concerns about their background, characteristics, homogeneity, and behavioral patterns.[1] Regrettably, such is the case in post-Taliban Afghanistan.

The hasty entry of Hamid Karzai, his cabinet colleagues and regional leaders eight years ago is proving a costly deal. The resources of Afghan non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are used at will for individual benefits, because donors rarely condition their aid on an assessment of background, characteristics, and behavioral patterns of key staff of the recipient. So-called Afghan civil society is predominantly comprised of the rich and powerful whose abilities (speaking English, understanding Western culture and values) and lifestyles (luxurious homes, mobility, and access to technology) enable them to communicate better with donors and other representatives of the international community than grassroots or other sectors of society with the same field of specialization are able to.

This essay explores the subject of the post-Taliban political leadership in Afghanistan by addressing two related questions: First, why is the quality of political leadership, especially of individuals occupying high office, a critically important ingredient for a successful post-conflict transformation? And second, which features of political leadership are most conducive (and in the Afghan case have been present or missing) to furthering peace and reconstruction?

Political Leadership in Afghanistan — Essential but Deficient

Political leaders who occupy a high office in a legally sanctioned government have more power than political leaders who do not, simply by virtue of the legitimacy of government and the resources at their disposal. In a post-war situation and in a unique case like that of Afghanistan, political leaders are of particular importance. They may possess more power than those in an orderly institutional setting because they mainly engage on behalf of their constituents in an environment where fewer checks and balances are in place for accountability and transparency.

Institutionally, political leaders in post-war settings will eventually determine the fate of reconstruction efforts. They set the institutional rules of the game, breaking them at any point, or not agreeing upon them at all. As Ashraf, Ghani, and Clare Lockhart have written:

[They] must demonstrate that they can forge and maintain international partnerships for generating legitimacy in the international system and opportunity in the economy, understand and navigate the opportunities and constraints of globalisation, and maintain the trust and loyalty of citizens at home by generating a belief that the state can enhance their lives and capabilities. They must be able to conceive of an architecture of change that operates across functions on global, national and local levels. They show to their citizens that they participate in the world as respected global leaders, as well as representatives of distinctive cultural identities.[2]

Equally important is the role of political leadership in inspiring and rallying everyone, including interveners, around a vision with which both government organisations and broader society, as well, can identify.[3] Additionally, their persistent and deep involvement in all levels of development programs and familiarity with details further encourages success.[4]

Four Crucial Features of Effective Political Leadership[5]

1. Purposefulness and Determination

Lack of determination and decisiveness can easily be pointed out as Hamid Karzai’s main weakness. Ordinary Afghans, foreign diplomats, aid workers, political leaders and even armed opponents of the Karzai government are aware of it and have spoken about it. But how much does it matter? Take as an example the National Solidarity Programme (NSP) — arguably the only success story in post-Taliban Afghanistan. The NSP, which covered almost all of rural Afghanistan, was comprehensive: It addressed issues of governance, focused on rebuilding or building small infrastructure, and gave local communities “ownership” (block grants were transferred directly to members of the community who planned, implemented, and accounted for projects of their own design after receiving thorough training in planning, administration, accounting, and meeting management).

Aware of his precarious position in the government, the lead minister, who had been included in the cabinet merely on the back of his technical know-how, was aware of the fact he did not have sufficient popular support to sustain his position. That, along with his background as a long-time humanitarian worker, made him determined to create an exemplary ministry. This cannot be divorced from his technical skills, knowledge, and experience in the fields of humanitarian assistance and development. To achieve success, he had to bank heavily on members of the NGO community. In this effort, he appointed a former professional adversary as his Deputy Minister and a fellow member of NGO community as the Chief Coordinator. Their collaboration proved instrumental to the NSP’s success.

All three are cabinet colleagues now. However, they have yet to come up with something similar to, or better than, the NSP. The reason is clear: They do not have common goals, towards which they generate determination of the same levels. In fact, they are seeking to undermine one another in order to wield or retain more power, emboldened by the ill counsel of advisors, all of whom are foreign nationals. In one case, an Australian advisor actively and blatantly tweaked the donors to divert funds from their previous ministry to the new one to great dismay of their former boss and in spite of abundance financial resources. Important for the two offshoot ministers is also to create identities of their own and banish the protégé tags.

2. Intimate Relationship with the Bureaucracy

The success of the Minister of Rural Rehabilitation and Development (MRRD) to execute the NSP successfully was also due to his intimate relationship with the bureaucracy which he nurtured during his time in MRRD. His model was initially criticized. Karzai’s Chief of Staff told one of the authors in 2005 that creating a parallel structure of advisors by the Minister was costly, temporary, and counterproductive to the efforts institutionalization. However, what he had not foreseen was the plans of the Minister to embed the capable legion of advisors, on temporary consultancy contracts, into the main bureaucracy. His Deputy Minister was his senior advisor for a year until he was incorporated into the civil services structure. The trend went on, and the new elements presented a perfect example of a modern bureaucracy responsive to the demands of a post-war reconstruction phase.

In contrast, the inability of Karzai’s Chief of Staff not only hampered his efforts to reform his office but even cost him his job. The argument is reinforced by the case of the newly establish Independent Directorate for Local Governance (IDLG) whose director has kept the rotten bureaucratic structure intact and installed some new inept individuals. His advisory team — the Strategic Coordination Unit, or SCU — which consists of some capable individuals, has struggled to push their agenda. The SCU consistently has been undermined by the civil servants whose authority derives from their positions of power. In late 2006, the lead Inwent [6] consultant and the FES[7] Resident Representative sought one of the author’s advice on why their capacity-building and organizational development program for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was failing. We jointly concluded that the Minister’s incompetence and lack of integrity and determination were the reasons.

Similarly, the current Minister of Education (MoE) has complained in closed circles about the loyalty of his top bureaucrats who were installed by his predecessor, a supposed adversary. He says, “they are my deputies during the day and his deputies at night,” one of his confidants admitted to me this year. The former Minister (the same man who had successfully led MRRD) had created a synergy at MoE, replicating that success. However, the model is dependent on its agents. And the current Minister’s antagonistic relationship with the former Minister shapes his suspicions of his colleagues. Mutual lack of trust has thrown the ministry in disarray and impact of change is clear in its performance. This means that the intimate relationship with the bureaucracy, a crucial denominator for success, has ceased to exist, depriving it from achieving its goals.

3. Despite Internal Differences, United for a Cause

Afghanistan’s political leadership lacks a common vision and are only unified by one thing: political survival, as the cases of the five ministers discussed in this essay reveal. The moment they realized that the link between their personal ambitions and their counterparts’ weakened, their alliances fell apart and they formed destructive alliances against each other.

Furthermore, Karzai’s fragile administration has only responded in unity when threatened. They are united against insurgents because the latter threaten their very existence and hold on power. This is and has been the main reason for Karzai’s tolerance of a few disloyal governors who make personal gains of their government positions but never threaten Karzai’s central authority. The mere fact that every political leader in Afghanistan pins his/her survival to their favorable relationships with interveners has made the political leaders reluctant to work for what should have been a key demand of the international community — a common Afghan vision or goal.[8] The difference between political leadership of Afghanistan and their counterparts in other developmental states seems to be their perception of tools for preserving their power. The former sees tainted alliances with drug barons and warlords and reliance on interveners as their salvation. The latter saw economic growth and social progress as their salvation because it earned them the support of their constituents.

4. Relative Autonomy from Special Interests

As is the case in many post-conflict countries, Afghanistan has yet to formulate its set of national interests. And as is typically the case in aid-receiving countries, the Afghan government is completely driven by the interests of aid providing countries. During my time with the five ministers, I saw them regularly bow to both internal and external special interests. One Minister had to retain an entire department for the sake of only one person who was supported by Karzai’s Second Vice President. The department cost hundreds of thousands of dollars over a number of years and its head was a constant source of conflict in the ministry, slowing down or, at times, completely damaging the implementation of crucial development projects. A second Minister was so obsessed with keeping the ethnic balance that he appointed numerous incapable individuals, which not only demoralized others but also badly factionalized the Ministry, making the delivery of services almost impossible.

The Ministry of Agriculture has been one of the most incompetent government entities in a country where 70% of the population is dependent on agriculture for livelihood. Yet, its Deputy Ministers have held onto their positions due to their affiliations to two political parties accused of war crimes before and during the Afghan Civil War. One Deputy Minister famously solicits and engages in physical intimacy with his subordinates to the point of harassment. A number of his family members are employed in the Ministry in violation of standard procedures. The same is the case with the Afghan Development Association (ADA), one of the main Afghan recipients of donor funding, where 80% of staff are hired based on their membership of or goodwill towards a particular political party or their relationship with its management.[9] Consequently, the institutions in question constantly have labored to execute their mandates or reach their potential capacity instead of just serving the interests of a few.


The political and civil society leadership of Afghanistan lacks the popular support required for achieving peace. It is the responsibility of the leadership to facilitate the emergence of a common purpose in a society through creating reciprocal and equitable relationships among community participants. In Afghanistan, such a situation has not yet prevailed. Moreover, it may never happen since the leadership is almost totally disconnected from the society and incapable of understanding this crucial reality and working towards it.


[1]. G.R. Bassiry and R.H. Dekmejian, “America’s Global Companies: A Leadership Profile,” Business Horizons (January-February 1993), p. 47

[2]. Ashraf Ghani and Clare Lockhart, Fixing Failed States: A Framework for Rebuilding a Fractured World (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), pp. 189-190.

[3]. Ghani and Lockhart, Fixing Failed States, p. 190.

[4]. Ghani and Lockhart, Fixing Failed States, p. 191.

[5]. Drawing upon four main features of political leaders of developmental states, explored by Leftwich in “The Developmental State” (1994), we are analyzing the cases of five different ministers in the current cabinet of the Afghan Government, with whom one of us [Malaiz Daud] worked directly and closely from early 2003 until July 2009.

[6]. Inwent is a consultancy group based in Germany.

[7]. Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES) is a German political foundation affiliated with the German Social Democratic Party. FES had contracted Inwent to design and execute the capacity-building and organizational developmental program for the Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

[8]. One of many examples is German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier’s public support for the Afghan Foreign Minister, in the form of a threat issued to the Afghan Parliament, which had cast a vote of no confidence against the Minister.

[9]. Chairman of ADA Board of Directors, currently serves in Karzai’s cabinet.