The South Asia Channel

Keeping Karzai's feet to the fire

On Tuesday, the Afghan government convened an international conference, bringing together more than 70 countries to discuss the way forward in Afghanistan. As in previous conferences, the Karzai government outlined an ambitious agenda to enhance aid coordination, reduce corruption, strengthen the justice system, support job creation and economic growth and more.

Unfortunately, most of these commitments are unlikely to reverse the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan. Even if they are implemented -- far from guaranteed given unfulfilled promises in the past -- most of the technical proposals made by the parties don't address the key source of Afghanistan's insecurity: its political crisis, which drives insurgent mobilization, contributes to declining support for the Afghan government, and lies at the root of Kabul's failure to successfully implement past commitments. Increased aid coordination and more assistance for Afghan priorities will not change the deeply flawed political system, which relies on international aid and military support to survive on a narrowing base of Afghan public support.

Which Afghans lead?

The communiqué released following the conference's conclusion specifies this meeting, the London conference at the start of the year, the June peace jirga, and Karzai's November 2009 inauguration as part of a "Kabul Process" of which "the hallmark...is Afghan leadership and ownership." Unfortunately, a few brief references to public consultation and electoral reforms aside, the question of who gets a say in determining that Afghan leadership is deferred, leaving unchallenged the Karzai government's position as the sole representative of the Afghan people and the sole judge of their priorities. The tenuous nature of this claim is inadvertently exposed by the communiqué when it grounds the Karzai government's right to exercise policy leadership in "its unique and irreplaceable knowledge of its own culture and people" rather than representative legitimacy earned through elections or a transparent and genuinely consultative processes.

The Karzai government operates on a highly centralized patronage model in which power and resources are principally channeled through Karzai's allies and political network and in which checks and balances on its activities -- either at the national parliamentary or local district level -- are largely absent. Karzai, who won the 2009 presidential elections in an election marred by fraud, appoints more than a thousand positions nationwide, from provincial governors to city mayors, from Supreme Court justices to district police chiefs. Afghans have little to no means of influencing decision-making, or to hold officials accountable for poor performance or outright abuses of their performance. It is then unsurprising that corruption plagues the state; an Integrity Watch report stated that Afghans paid more than $1 billion in bribes in 2009 alone, and UN estimates have put the number at almost $2.5 billion -- nearly a quarter of the national GDP.

Many Afghans have joined the insurgency due to their anger with the Afghan government, from which they see themselves politically marginalized and which they perceive to be corrupt, illegitimate, and predatory. A recent Pentagon assessment found that only 29 out of 121 strategic districts surveyed were "sympathetic with" or "supportive of" the Afghan government; and a 2009 study of drivers of the insurgency found that in the insurgent areas of Wardak, Kandahar and the Kabul area, there was almost no support for the government, which was viewed as politically exclusive and a foreign puppet. The Taliban insurgency has outmaneuvered the Afghan government politically by promising swift justice and dispute resolution, providing shadow governance, and using sophisticated propaganda, violence and intimidation against those who cooperate with the Afghan government.

Lip service

The Karzai government has failed to present a compelling alternative to the Taliban insurgency's brutal movement, and only political reforms that begin to address the unrepresentative nature of the Karzai government offer the chance of peace in Afghanistan. Political reforms will be essential for any reconciliation process to occur between the Karzai government and three important constituencies -- its people, the insurgency, and the international community. The international community must demand follow through on three promises in particular made at the Kabul conference: reducing corruption and instituting accountability, implementing electoral reforms, and the implementation of a subnational governance plan that cedes some decision-making powers from Kabul's exclusive control.

Reduce corruption. Karzai promised to reduce corruption, but his implementation plan largely amounted to creating a number of regulations, statutes and policies related to auditing procedures within the government and for anti-corruption bodies such as the Major Crimes Task Force and the Anti-Corruption Tribunal. He also committed to publishing asset declarations of senior officials, already required by law.

These commitments ring hollow following years of broken promises on this anti-corruption efforts. Karzai has established a series of anti-corruption bodies including the General Independent Administration of Anti-Corruption in 2004, the High Office of Oversight and Anti-Corruption, the Anti-Corruption Unit and the Major Crimes Task Force in the Attorney General's office in 2008. These efforts, all of which have been managed from the presidential office, have failed to stem the growing corruption, and reports indicate that Karzai has continued to block corruption investigations of politically connected individuals. The international community must demand genuine independence for anti-corruption and vetting offices by making them accountable to the parliament rather than Karzai alone.

Changes to the electoral law: The Karzai government promised to initiate within six months a "strategy for long-term electoral reform that addresses in particular the sustainability of the electoral process" but offers little elaboration beyond that on what these reforms might be. Clearly, this does not go far enough or quickly enough in ensuring free and fair elections, especially for the parliamentary elections to be held in September 2010. The international community should put high-level pressure on Karzai to begin these reforms now.

In early 2010, Karzai unilaterally rewrote the country's electoral law, giving himself the power to appoint all members of the Electoral Complaints Commission who adjudicate fraud claims (and were the only independent electoral body during the 2009 elections). Following international pressure, he subsequently agreed to name two UN representatives to that panel. Electoral reforms need to include provisions giving the parliament power to name some Electoral Complaints Commission members and to confirm the Independent Elections Commission director, rather than acceding to the executive branch's control over both. Moreover, reforms should reconsider using the Single Non-Transferable Vote (SNTV) system in Afghan elections, which critics have argued "impedes the development of political parties and prevents fair and accurate representation of Afghanistan's diverse population."

Strengthen subnational governance. The Karzai government agreed in the conference communiqué to implement their Sub-National Governance Policy within 12 months. This document, passed in March 2010 following two years in the draft phase, is an important blueprint for devolving some authorities to the local level and strengthening local governance although it too has flaws. The policy envisions strengthening provincial councils' oversight powers and empowering them to approve Provincial Development Plans and provincial budgets before their submission to the central government. It also introduces budgeting processes at the provincial level, which grant elected provincial councils powers to create their own alternative budget for their respective areas -- although decision-making on the formulas for money distribution between those budgets and the ones drawn up by line ministries in Kabul remains under Karzai's control. The Sub-National Governance Policy also calls for district council and municipal council elections by March 2011 and gives municipal councils powers to enact municipal legislation, approve annual budgets, and set tax rates.

Implementation of this plan should be a top priority for the international community, which should demand a clear commitment to both local elections and the introduction of the provincial budgeting process.

International donors have seized on "Afghan leadership" as the means by which to extricate themselves from an increasingly costly commitment, but without changes to the way power is currently shared (or not) within Afghanistan by that leadership, there is little hope that the Afghan government will become more competent, accountable to public concerns, or reconciled with disaffected segments of society or members of the insurgency in Afghanistan. As the principle guarantors of the Karzai government's operations and its continued survival, the international community is the only constituency capable at this point of demanding meaningful political reforms. The U.S. and other international donors must hold Karzai to the promises he has made in exchange for continued economic and security assistance, and demand a more concrete commitment to genuinely inclusive power-sharing. Otherwise, the international community is likely to find itself responsible for propping up an "Afghan leadership" disconnected from the Afghan people for many years to come.

Caroline Wadhams is the Director for South Asia Security Studies and Colin Cookman is a Research Assistant at the Center for American Progress. 

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