BY RYAN NORTON: This Saturday, Afghans will elect their first new president since Hamid Karzai was appointed in 2001. Despite all the resources poured into Afghanistan over the past 12 years, this political transition could ensure the success or failure of the international community’s effort to rebuild Afghanistan. A successful transition and a continuation of the international effort to support the Afghan state could lead to a more stable, prosperous Afghanistan and South Asia as a region. Getting it wrong could lead to the collapse of the Afghan government and a reversal of Afghanistan’s many advances in security, human rights, healthcare, and economic opportunity that have emerged over the past decade.
The first obstacle to a successful transition is President Hamid Karzai. He has refused to sign the bilateral security agreement with the U.S. that would keep around 10,000 troops in the country. In his final speech to the Afghan Parliament, Karzai stated Afghanistan does not need international troops but would sign the security agreement when peace is established. It’s clear Karzai does not want his already contentious record to include a long-term commitment to an international security force presence. President Obama and international officials are rightly looking to his successor to shape Afghanistan’s future.
Without the security agreement, U.S. forces will be pulled from the country. President Obama outlined this “zero option” to President Karzai in February and the U.S. military has planned for this option. Without the security provided by international security forces, development and aid workers would likely be pulled from the country or restricted to mostly secure facilities in Kabul. Without these critical government advisers, international funding would be severely reduced or cut off completely. As high as 97% of the Afghan economy is dependent on foreign aid and military assistance, and Afghanistan’s GDP has already dropped from 14% to 4% this year due to previously planned troop withdrawals and the uncertain political situation. The contrast to our hasty exit from Iraq and our current inability to project influence beyond our embassy in Baghdad, coupled with the threat of the Taliban looming, should give a sense of urgency to signing the bilateral security agreement.
The good news is that all the presidential candidates support the bilateral security agreement and will likely sign it shortly after taking office. However, there is much more riding on the presidential election than the bilateral security agreement. The 2001 Bonn Conference that first brought Hamid Karzai to power, enshrined in the constitution broad powers for the Afghan presidency. Under this system the president appoints the two vice presidents, government ministers, attorney general, director of the central bank, director of the national directorate of security (think FBI), and all 34 provincial governor posts. The new president will also be commander and chief of the armed forces. The president also retains veto power over legislation and certainly has broad powers in enforcing existing laws through the ministries and security forces.
This centralization of power has made progress in Afghanistan so illusory. Over the years, instead of being broadly accountable to the public, government ministers and regional governors have ruled their fiefdoms through a system of patronage and elite capture. Instead of appointing government ministers who were qualified and capable of doing the job, Karzai and other officials often appointed political allies or traded posts for favors. Similarly, instead of each province electing their own provincial governor, Karzai distributed the posts based on maintaining regional control and isolating rivals from Kabul. To retain control and influence in these areas, government officials routinely accept bribes and pocket funds from border customs, foreign aid programs, security forces logistics contracts, and natural resources extraction—poppy primarily.
Worse, the task of appointing district governors, the equivalent of a U.S. mayor, was allocated to a centralized ministry in Kabul. Provincial governors often filled these empty posts when Kabul failed to provide candidates, linking the patronage scheme from the President to the local level. The only democratically elected officials are the president, parliamentarians, and the district or provincial shuras—an elected body of tribal and community elders. Unfortunately, elected officials typically reflect regional tribal influences and elected bodies became an extension of preexisting tribal rivalries. The illicit drug trade has only enforced the power of and conflict between many corrupt officials and tribal leaders. American political and military officials stuck in their secured bases were mostly powerless to influence Afghan politics, as international aid money flowed to the Afghan security forces and infrastructure projects instead of government capacity building. As a result, Afghan governance is as fleeting as economic growth.
The election of a new Afghan president is a chance for the Afghan people to chart a new course. The new Afghan president will be relied upon to maintain security while conducting peace talks with Taliban groups; transition the country from an over dependence on foreign aid to sustainable economic growth; and reform or at least maintain the fragile political patronage network that holds the country together. Similarly, the president will be called upon to negotiate the often-contentious relationship with Pakistan, who provides 40% of Afghan imports and holds the key to any Taliban peace agreement. It would be idealistic to think a new president could radically reform this system. However, a weak president could collapse the Afghan political system and economy. Add in the variable of the Taliban either disrupting the election or seeking to fill the power vacuum left by Karzai, and this is clearly the most important moment in Afghanistan’s recent history.