Center for American Progress

Preparing for the Upcoming Afghan Political Transition

Preparing for the Upcoming Afghan Political Transition

The United States and its partners must continue to focus on Afghanistan’s upcoming presidential election and political transition despite the world’s focus on the conflict in Syria.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai speaks at a press conference during a ceremony at a military academy on the outskirts of Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday, June 18, 2013. (AP/Rahmat Gul)
Afghan President Hamid Karzai speaks at a press conference during a ceremony at a military academy on the outskirts of Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday, June 18, 2013. (AP/Rahmat Gul)

While U.S. policymakers focus their attention on Syria’s civil war and the August 21 chemical weapons attack, Afghanistan is quickly approaching a political transition that will require sustained U.S. attention to be successful. Afghans will soon begin announcing their candidacies on September 16, and campaigning will follow in the lead-up to the presidential election scheduled for April 5, 2014—all in a volatile security situation and political environment. The U.S. foreign-policy establishment is rightfully concerned about the situation in the Middle East, but continued U.S. leadership in Afghanistan remains essential to ensuring a successful and peaceful transition process and maintaining the gains made by the United States and its allies. As the U.S. military draws down after more than 12 years of war, our job in Afghanistan is not done.

A series of recent developments have made Afghanistan’s first major transfer of executive power since 2001 from President Hamid Karzai to his successor more probable. These include the ratification of two pieces of parliamentary legislation that established an electoral architecture for Afghanistan: the establishment of an Independent Electoral Commission to organize the elections and the floating of potential candidates to succeed President Karzai. These developments come after a concerted push by Afghan leaders and civil society, the United States, and members of the international community, all of whom emphasized the importance of a credible election process and urged President Karzai to pass the electoral laws he had previously vetoed.

A credible, inclusive, and transparent electoral process will be one central ingredient in a successful political transition, but it will not be sufficient to forge a new political consensus to replace the current frayed one. That consensus, reached by a diverse set of Afghan factions but excluding the Taliban, is now so fragile—a result of years of abuse by many Afghan government officials and their allies, perceptions of exclusion, and flawed elections in 2009 and 2010—that many now fear that Afghan leaders will return to infighting as the United States draws down its forces.

Developing a stronger political consensus will demand that Afghans, especially factional leaders who have resisted fighting thus far—the “nonviolent opposition”—negotiate, cajole, and strategize over what’s next. Who are acceptable candidates? In a time of declining resources, how will power and resources be shared among a broader swathe of Afghan society? Afghan leaders who represent different political groupings are already meeting to discuss these questions.

While the responsibilities of a transition will largely fall on Afghan shoulders, the United States and the international community should continue to support this process in the lead-up to the 2014 presidential election and beyond, without picking any one candidate. Here are three recommended steps to supporting a peaceful political transition.

1. Mitigate the risk of spoilers

The United States and its partners should attempt to reduce the risk of spoilers, who might delay or suspend the election or sabotage the election process through intimidation or violence. Spoiler actions might include attacking electoral workers, candidates, or polling stations and mobilizing formal and informal security forces and militias to disenfranchise citizens or support fraud. The United States and the international community should focus on mitigating spoiler behavior during the political transition process by actors who fall into three camps in particular: President Karzai and those close to him who have benefitted from the past decade and may resist new leadership; regional players who aim to advance their own proxies; and insurgents, who fear an electoral outcome with significant Afghan buy-in.

    • President Karzai and his allies: At a very minimum, President Karzai should be assured of his safety after power is transferred to his successor, and Afghans and international actors should incentivize his departure. Moreover, the United States and its international partners should map out a list of President Karzai’s associates who have benefitted from international largesse over the past decade and who have something to lose after a change in power and the withdrawal of U.S. forces. International actors will most likely not compensate these individuals for potential losses, but at the very least, internationals and Afghans can better understand the potential risks and trigger points, using diplomatic pressure to prevent negative developments such as an electoral boycott, mobilization of militias, or even a coup.


    • Regional players:Frequent dialogue with the Pakistanis and others who are fearful of the transition should be intensified, with acknowledgement that legitimate Pakistani security interests should be protected in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s civilian and military leadership have expressed support for a stable Afghanistan and fear that greater instability in Afghanistan will threaten Pakistani security. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s trip in August to Pakistan to visit with newly elected Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his decision to restart the strategic dialogue with Pakistan were important steps, as was Vice President Joe Biden’s trip to India. The United States should also continue its efforts to facilitate dialogue and coordination among countries in the region after 2014, utilizing current mechanisms such as the Istanbul Process and the offices of special representatives to sustain long-term support and prevent counterproductive hedging behavior. It should specifically encourage dialogue and confidence-building measures between India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. The situation in Syria clearly complicates this regional picture, making regional cooperation more difficult to achieve but important to pursue nonetheless.

      One important way to provide greater confidence and deter hedging would be a clearer commitment of U.S. and NATO troop numbers and financial assistance after 2014, even without an agreement on the bilateral strategic agreement with the Afghan government. Even if the United States must negotiate this agreement with President Karzai’s successor, the U.S. government should clarify that the United States intends—if the Afghan government agrees—to maintain a limited troop presence to advise and train the Afghan National Security Forces, or ANSF, and conduct targeted counterterrorism attacks where necessary post-2014.


  • Insurgents:The United States, Afghanistan, and the Taliban insurgency are unlikely to reach a political agreement prior to the election. Given the Taliban insurgency’s consistent statements opposing the election, the United States and NATO International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, should support the ANSF in restricting insurgent movement and ability to attack candidates and other high-value targets before and on election day. This might include logistical, intelligence, and airpower support. Increased protection must be especially provided to candidates—both male and female—who will be easy targets for insurgents.

    Through mechanisms such as the trilateral talks between the United States, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, the United States should also facilitate close cooperation between the ANSF and the Pakistani military to close borders around election day, as in previous elections. Top Pakistani, Afghan, and ISAF military commanders have already met to discuss measures to improve border control along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border; the new Pakistani foreign-policy advisor has pledged cooperation for mutual regional peace.

    The United States and international community should also keep the door open for negotiations with insurgents under the Afghan government’s lead, even if only to obtain local ceasefires. The Afghan government’s Afghanistan Peace and Reconciliation Program, or APRP, was created in 2010 to reintegrate insurgents and should also be bolstered as a vehicle for conflict resolution. So far, it has failed to make a significant impact on the strength of the insurgency or the dynamics of the conflict, despite its claims to have removed thousands of fighters from the battlefield. It has largely focused on providing financial incentives and security to fighters who agree to lay down their arms, although the program’s original intent was to focus on grievance resolution of communities. In spite of its flaws, this program has the potential to assist in reducing conflict in Afghanistan if grievance resolution were repositioned as a central component of the program and local efforts were linked to the High Peace Council’s reconciliation work. Anecdotal evidence suggests that some local leaders, including members of the Provincial Peace Councils and many women, have already engaged in local reconciliation efforts but without coordination with the High Peace Council, oversight from Kabul, or a larger national plan.

2. Support inclusive politics

The United States should support inclusive politics through support for a technically sound electoral process, as well as through urging broad participation by Afghan women, youth, and its diverse ethnic groups. The international community should continue to provide technical advice and financial support on the electoral processes as it has in previous Afghan elections. While the optics of foreign interference need to be considered, U.S. and international policymakers should ensure the provision of financial and technical assistance to establish the Independent Electoral Complaints Commission, or IECC—an essential watchdog for adjudicating complaints—and consider a general electoral fund for candidates with fewer finances, especially for those in need of enhancing their security.

In addition, the international community will need to consistently state its support for an inclusive process in all stages of the presidential election, including the establishment of the IECC, the candidate nomination and verification process in September and October, the campaign period, and the adjudication process over the results. It should also renew a decree prohibiting the use of government resources in campaigns; support the participation of women as candidates, election workers, and voters; and urge the Electoral Complaints Commission and Independent Electoral Commission to make transparent decisions to the Afghan public and international community.

It also means that the embassy and U.S. officials should make a concerted effort to meet with all candidates and support civic education, media coverage, and transparency in the process so that the larger population is informed and involved. A particular focus on women and youth is necessary, given that approximately 68 percent of the Afghan population is under the age of 25.

In addition to urging the participation of women and youth in political consensus building, the international community should continue to urge the inclusion of Pashtuns, especially those in the south and east, where the insurgency is strongest. This means urging Afghans to include southern Pashtuns in political coalitions as candidates or in tickets.

An inclusive process will require enhanced security and access to polling stations. As mentioned previously, the United States and NATO-ISAF should provide support to the ANSF as they protect candidates, electoral officials, polling stations, and more.

3. Take cues from history

Past mistakes must be avoided. A look back at Afghanistan’s experience in the 1990s offers many lessons of what to avoid during Afghanistan’s political transition and the foreign drawdown from Afghanistan, including the dangers of moving outside of a constitutional framework, creating an interim government, and suspending foreign assistance to the Afghan government.

Following the Soviet troop withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, President Mohammad Najibullah remained in power for several years as a result of divisions among the mujahidin and continued Soviet assistance. It was only when Soviet support to President Najibullah was suspended that his government quickly fell. The Afghan government’s security forces disintegrated, and many joined different political military networks.

Several years later in April 1992—after a failed U.N. transition plan from President Najibullah to an inclusive successor government—seven Pakistan-based parties representing different elements of the mujahidin signed the Peshawar Accord in Pakistan and created an interim government in Afghanistan. The Accord divvied up power, placing control in the hands of Sibghatullah Mujaddidi for two months, followed by Professor Burhanuddin Rabbani for four months as president, and Ahmad Massoud as defense minister; it also established a 51-person body dubbed the Islamic Council to advise the president. The accord attempted to appease most major political players in Afghanistan but crumbled due to disagreements by party leaders, unleashing a brutal civil war in Afghanistan in which thousands of civilians died.

It will ultimately be up to Afghans to make agreements among themselves to avoid chaos and loss of life similar to that of the 1990s. The United States and the international community, however, should tread carefully to avoid a repeat of those years. They should urge Afghans to hold the election on time on April 5, 2014, and caution against the establishment of any interim government between President Karzai and a successor government. Creating an interim government—a possibility, if the election is delayed—has the potential to unleash greater violence in an uncertain political environment. The United States should also continue to pursue regional dialogue and coordination to avoid the regional use of proxies as in the 1990s when countries backed separate Afghan actors to advance their respective agendas, thereby fueling civil war.

The United States must also adhere to the commitments it made at the conferences in Tokyo and Chicago to maintain approximately $4 billion per year for the Afghan National Security Forces, the Afghan government, and development priorities. Given the recent events in the Middle East from the civil war in Syria to growing uncertainty in Egypt, Congress and the country as a whole will be tempted to turn away from its commitments to Afghanistan. While U.S. policymakers should demand transparency and accountability for these funds and be willing to reduce funds in a targeted way if those demands are not met, Congress should not abruptly make significant cuts, as it did in 1992. Doing so would deeply destabilize Afghanistan and threaten to undermine the progress that has already cost so much.

Caroline Wadhams is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. John Podesta is the Chair of the Center.

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Caroline Wadhams

Senior Fellow