The hope that ‘transition’ can be accomplished in Afghanistan by 2014 crucially depends upon developments in two spheres. First, the radical groups that make up the Taliban movement currently enjoy the use of sanctuaries in Pakistan, supported by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI). If these sanctuaries remain intact and operational, then the prospects for anything but disaster in Afghanistan are very poor. Second, in key respects the politics, political institutions, and public administration of Afghanistan are profoundly dysfunctional. If problems in this sphere are left to fester, then ‘transition’ could still lead to a shambles, even if the issue of sanctuaries has been confronted.
It is the first of these two problems that is the more threatening, but addressing it is a matter of high politics for the great powers. The second poses a more immediate challenge for states such as Australia, since at the local level at least, contributors to ISAF efforts in Afghanistan may have some leverage to encourage positive political developments. The following remarks therefore focus on the issues of governance in Afghanistan that require the most urgent and immediate attention. Five in particular stand out.
First, the domestic legitimacy of the Karzai government is questionable. Mr Karzai secured a second term as president on the strength of monumental fraud in the August 2009 presidential poll, and while there is no ‘smoking gun’ linking him directly to the fraud, he had no qualms about profiting from it. Some observers feel that he has ridden the crisis that the election results triggered, but such a view may be overly sanguine: legitimacy crises often come as a result of accumulated frustrations, and flare only when a leader oversteps the limits of popular tolerance—something that could easily happen if President Karzai sought to strike some kind of deal with the Taliban, a step that could easily tip Afghanistan into a state of civil war.
Second, corruption and abuse of power are major problems which blight the standing of both the Afghan Government and its international supporters. Where corruption is concerned, there is little evidence of direct theft of state resources, but evidence in abundance of bribe-taking by officials, ranging from the petty activities of clerks and local police to monstrous acts of self-enrichment by people at the top of the political elite. This problem has been compounded by multiple subcontracting of aid projects, with relatively weak oversight from foreign donors. But what really stings for ordinary people is abuse of power, the impunity enjoyed by those who are well-connected or rich enough to bribe their way out of trouble. The rule of law as a principle constraining the powerful simply does not exist in Afghanistan. This is a source of smouldering fury on the part of ordinary Afghans, and makes it very important for international actors to be careful about the company they keep.
Third, the Afghan constitution of 2004 has not served the country well. A strong presidential system in an ethnically-diverse country risks fuelling ethnic tensions or rivalries, and can create a central executive office which is massively-overburdened. The weakness of the legislature means that checks on the day-to-day activities of the executive between elections are also relatively weak. A thoroughgoing review of how the constitution has performed would be a very good thing. Yet constitutional reform will not easily be secured: too many members of the political elite benefit from the current system, and can be expected to resist tooth-and-nail any attempts to reform it.
Fourth, the Afghan political system is afflicted with notable problems in the areas of administration and bureaucratic functioning. The government has far too many ministries, often in serious conflict with each other because ministers come from different political factions. The procedures of agencies that deal with ordinary people are too often unbelievably cumbersome, requiring multiple signatures or approvals before even the simplest innovations can be attempted. This provides opportunities for officials to exact corrupt payments, and incentives for frustrated petitioners to offer them. Finally, while there are some incredibly bright young Afghans working in these agencies, they are often kept under the thumbs of self-interested time-servers who would rather kill an imaginative project than see someone else get the credit for it.
Fifth, the system is hugely over-centralised, in a way that fosters nepotism and patronage, the flourishing of unappetising ‘strongmen’ and cronies of the president and his circle, and congenitally-weak institutions. President Karzai is in no sense exclusively to blame for this. In 2002, he was deprived of the benefits of a swift expansion of ISAF beyond Kabul, and as we now learn from the memoirs of former US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, he was actively encouraged by his American ally to emulate the patronage politics of Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago! It is hardly surprising that he sought to protect himself against spoiler behaviour by offering state positions to potential spoilers. Without popular election of local officials with control of resources, there will likely be little progress on this front, but as Professor Nazif Shahrani has pointed out, it is necessary also to impose strict term limits on occupants. Otherwise, a dysfunctional centralised system will simply be replaced by an archipelago of dysfunctional local administrations.
* These are the author’s personal views.