There’s No Success Without Political Progress

The U.S. military and intelligence community took two steps forward in Afghanistan, but President Karzai took two steps back, write Caroline Wadhams and Colin Cookman.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai speaks during the opening session of Afghan Parliament in Kabul, Afghanistan on Saturday, February 20, 2010 after passing a number of questionable measures during the recess. (AP/Presidential Palace)
Afghan President Hamid Karzai speaks during the opening session of Afghan Parliament in Kabul, Afghanistan on Saturday, February 20, 2010 after passing a number of questionable measures during the recess. (AP/Presidential Palace)

Despite some battlefield accomplishments in Marjah, Afghanistan and the capture of multiple key Taliban leaders in Pakistan, serious backsteps on Afghanistan’s political front over recent months may have far greater implications for the sustainability of American efforts and Afghanistan’s long-term stability.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has further consolidated control over the country’s electoral processes through a presidential decree passed during Afghanistan’s parliamentary recess, and he recently enacted into law a controversial 2007 measure providing blanket amnesty from prosecution for veteran military commanders and Taliban fighters that lay down their arms. What’s more, key anticorruption initiatives that President Karzai promised to the international community at the London conference in January 2010 have yet to be fully enacted, calling into question Karzai’s commitment to governance reform.

The U.S. government’s public response has been far too muted, with State Department spokesmen describing the electoral law decree as "the Afghan government stepping up and assuming its responsibilities for its own [election] process." But it has said little on the passage of the amnesty law or the lack of progress on anticorruption measures, implying that justice and improved governance are expendable to the Obama administration despite their inclusion in their Regional Stabilization Strategy.

Military and civilian leaders alike have argued that the insurgency in Afghanistan will not be defeated solely through battlefield victories. Many Afghans join the insurgency because of their hatred or disillusionment with an abusive, incompetent, or absent government. Interviews with Marjah residents suggest that corruption and a desire to avoid government intrusion were principle motivators for supporting the Taliban. If poor governance, tainted elections, and an absence of transparent justice continue to plague Afghanistan, the insurgency will likely continue to grow no matter how many insurgents are killed or captured.

Karzai’s backward steps therefore threaten to undermine the U.S. military’s progress in Afghanistan and Pakistan and must be understood as dangerous trends that are as important to the overall mission as success in Marjah. The Obama administration and the international community must use their considerable financial and political leverage to make clear that these steps are unacceptable and demand measures that make free and fair elections possible, increased accountability for those responsible for human rights violations and other crimes, and the implementation of anticorruption initiatives.

Power grab

In an apparent attempt to increase his power, President Karzai issued a decree rewriting the country’s electoral law while the Afghan parliament was out of session, on February 13. A full translation of the document has yet to be released, but reports indicate that Karzai increased his control over the Electoral Complaints Commission—the one electoral body that demonstrated independence by exposing fraud and abuse during the August 2009 presidential and provincial council elections. The ECC threw out at least 1 million votes during those elections, forcing President Karzai into a run-off with his opponent Abdullah Abdullah, although this run-off was subsequently cancelled following Abdullah’s withdrawal from the race.

Karzai will now appoint all five members of the ECC in consultation with both houses of the parliament and the chief justice of the Supreme Court. Previously, three of the five members of the commission were foreigners appointed by the United Nations. President Karzai is claiming to "Afghanize" the commission to stop foreign meddling. But the other Afghan electoral monitoring body, the Independent Electoral Commission, is already perceived to be under Karzai’s control since Karzai appoints all of its members. It refused to acknowledge the vote stealing that occurred during the August elections and may have facilitated much of the fraud.

The decree also includes additional worrying language that would require presidential candidates to pay a fee of up to 2,500,000 Afghanis—more than $51,000—a sum out of the reach of the majority of Afghan households although it can supposedly be refunded if the candidate does not win 10 percent of the vote. The threshold of supporters needed to register a prospective candidacy for the presidency has also been raised tenfold. And it allows seats allocated to female candidates in certain constituencies to be filled by men if left vacant. This can potentially create a situation, as expressed by the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan, that "may even cause powerful male candidates in electoral constituencies to threaten female candidates and forcibly dissuade them from taking part in the election process."

The additional electoral reforms demanded by the international community and Afghan opposition leaders—including making the IEC more independent and removing the single nontransferable vote system—are now unlikely to occur prior to the upcoming parliamentary elections because Afghan law prevents any changes to the electoral law in the last year of the legislative term.

Karzai’s decree may have serious repercussions for Afghanistan’s parliamentary elections, which have been delayed from May 2010 until September 18, 2010. The weakening of the ECC will likely mean that there is no legitimate, independent electoral body monitoring the elections and honestly adjudicating complaints. This calls into question whether the elections will only usher more Karzai cronies into the parliament, destroying its independence. The parliament has served as a weak, but important check on Karzai’s power and as a channel for dissent within Afghan society.

The Karzai regime appears convinced that a centrally directed electoral process is worth the loss in legitimacy. But fraudulent elections have the potential to be deeply destabilizing for Afghanistan, and the patronage model preferred by Karzai relies on continued external or illicit funding streams to retain supporters’ loyalties. If factions within Afghanistan’s divided society feel excluded from leadership positions within the Karzai government or the parliament, they may turn to violence to express their discontent. They will be less invested in the state-building mission underway in Afghanistan, believing it will offer them nothing. While free and fair elections do not make a functioning democracy, they are a minimum requirement for channeling dissent through political means. A Karzai-dominated government perceived as insular and self-seeking will only galvanize Afghanistan’s insurgency.

Culture of Impunity

The National Reconciliation, General Amnesty and National Stability Law also quietly came into force during the parliamentary recess in December 2009 after spending years in legal limbo. Individuals currently under prosecution for national and international security crimes are exempt from the resolution, but the amnesty law provides immunity for all other warlords and Taliban fighters who "cease enmity" against the government of Afghanistan.

This law was passed in early 2007 by a small majority of the parliament, many of whom are veterans of the anti-Soviet jihad and the tumultuous civil war period of the early 1990s, and was approved by the president in March 2007. But it was not considered a law in force because it was not published in the official gazette, largely because it was met with heavy resistance by Afghan civil society and human rights groups. Amnesty International, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, and other human rights groups describe the law as "an attempt to provide legal cover for ongoing impunity for perpetrators of human rights violations, including the Taliban."

Afghanistan’s culture of impunity, where the powerful are not held accountable and average Afghans have no recourse to justice, has been a central source of support for the insurgency. In areas where the Taliban have consolidated power, they have mediated disputes, provided mobile courts, and exacted harsh punishments in recognition of this desire. A central appeal of the Taliban in its rise to power during the civil war of the 1990s when Afghans were at the mercy of abusive warlords was its promise to bring justice to Afghanistan. The new amnesty law has the potential to further inflame Afghans’ grievances over the lack of accountability in their society, especially for the rich and powerful, sapping support for the reconstruction effort.

Anticorruption paralysis

Corruption remains pervasive in Afghanistan. A recent survey by the U.N. Office of Drugs and Crime estimates that Afghans paid over $2.5 billion in bribes in the past year, the approximate equivalent of one-quarter of the country’s licit GDP. Afghanistan was also ranked the second most corrupt country in the world in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index in November 2009.

President Karzai described the fight against corruption as "the key focus of my second term in office" in his opening remarks to the international conference on Afghanistan in London held in January. But he has yet to take serious action to strengthen and give independence to the High Office of Oversight, an agency established to fight corruption across all government agencies. The government did establish a new Major Crimes Taskforce and an Anti-Corruption Unit in November 2009 shortly before Karzai was sworn in for his second term, and this unit has conducted a handful of investigations and prosecutions thus far. Yet he did not pass an anticorruption decree during the parliamentary recess, as proposed in an American plan.


The Afghan government’s recent acts of commission and omission demonstrate a continued desire to duck serious governance reform. These decisions will exacerbate Afghanistan’s dearth of judicial accountability, perpetuate pervasive corruption, and undermine the possibility of free and fair elections.

It is worth contrasting the U.S. government’s subdued response to Karzai’s dangerous actions to the quick action taken by General Stanley McChrystal, who commands NATO and American forces in the country. Following a deadly airstrike gone awry that appears to have killed over 30 civilians in Uruzgan this past Sunday, General McChrystal immediately issued a nationally televised apology and offered compensation for the victims. McChrystal’s military command has correctly identified the issue of civilian casualties as a major strategic concern as it drives Afghan opposition to the presence of international forces in the country and offers insurgents exploitable material for their propaganda efforts. This is not a substitute for better intelligence and command oversight of the covert special operations forces who took part in the raid, but it is an improvement from past practices and at least partially reduces the strain that active military operations continue to place on Afghan society.

For all the focus on civilian casualties, the fact remains that building Afghan public support requires more than minimizing harm to the population. It also requires offering positive incentives in the form of just and representative governance—or at very least, clear progress in that direction. U.S. and NATO leaders must not gloss over these trends as unfortunate episodes, but rather understand them as major strategic setbacks that will undermine the overall mission in Afghanistan.

The Afghan government will only defeat the insurgency if it can outgovern, and not just out-fight, them. And the Obama administration and the international community must demand more from Karzai than anti-corruption rhetoric. As men and women from across the country and around the world risk their lives to defend the Afghan government, it must prove that it is worth supporting.

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Caroline Wadhams

Senior Fellow

Colin Cookman

Policy Analyst