Achieving a set of goals in Afghanistan requires overcoming decades of transitory alliances between the international community and local Afghan military and political leaders. It also means a consensus for reform will need to be developed among both Afghan and international policymakers, who are currently divided on the appropriate way forward.
The Karzai government, for its part, seeks great international support for the current system, in which the formally centralized state attempts to use its powers of patronage and resource redistribution to co-opt the local power brokers it identifies as most important to ward off competitors. In this regard it hopes to succeed where past regimes have failed once international support dried up. Many representatives in the international community, frustrated with Karzai’s performance, have instead proposed finding new partners at the subnational level who remain disconnected from the state. They hope that local authorities can maintain a better hold of their areas in order to resist the Taliban insurgency. Both approaches, however, ultimately depend on continued access to large-scale international assistance against a determined insurgent movement.
The international community criticizes the Karzai government for corruption and a lack of responsiveness to public concerns. But they have thus far refrained from pressing specific and serious institutional and systemic reforms. Instead we undertake ad hoc reforms to a highly centralized system of governance that fails to address the basic drivers contributing to this disconnect. And we continue to engage in primarily short-term crisis management rather than long-term planning for a politically and economically sustainable Afghan nation state, despite recognition that a minimally functioning state is essential to the long-term stability of Afghanistan and the region.
Absent a greater focus on governance reform that gives the Afghan people at all levels greater powers to voice priorities, approve plans, and hold their leaders to account, the sustainability and legitimacy of the Afghan state over the medium to long term is in doubt—with serious implications for regional and international security in the years to come.
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