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Saturday, April 17, 2010

Afghanistan: Politics, Elections, and Government Performance

Kenneth Katzman
Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs

The performance and legitimacy of the Afghan government figured prominently in two reviews of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan during 2009 and continues to color U.S. relations with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. In his December 1, 2009, speech on Afghanistan, which followed the second review, President Obama stated that the Afghan government would be judged on performance, and "The days of providing a blank check are over." The policy statement was based, in part, on criticisms of Karzai's leadership by U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry and other U.S. officials. President Obama pressed Karzai on his government's deficiencies, particularly corruption, during a March 28, 2010, visit to Afghanistan and invited him to visit Washington D.C. on May 12, 2010. The visit may have contributed to two subsequent statements by Karzai accusing the international community of exercising undue pressure on him and on Afghanistan. 

The Afghan government's widespread official corruption, as well as its ineffectiveness, is identified by U.S. officials as feeding the insurgency. At the same time, Karzai's alliances with key ethnic and political faction leaders have reduced his ability to stock the government with politically neutral and technically competent officers. Despite diminished confidence in Karzai, he went into the August 20, 2009, presidential election as the favorite. Amid widespread charges of fraud, many substantiated by a U.N.-backed Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC), nearly one-third of Karzai's votes were invalidated, leaving Karzai just short of the 50%+ total needed to avoid a second-round runoff. Asserting that more fraud was likely, Karzai's main challenger dropped out of the race on November 1, 2009, and Karzai was declared the winner. He has since had difficulty obtaining parliamentary confirmation of a full cabinet, and 10 ministerial posts remain unfilled. Most of the highly regarded economic ministers have been confirmed. 

Karzai's hopes to rebuild international support for his leadership at a major international conference on Afghanistan in Britain on January 28, 2010, were only partly fulfilled. The conference endorsed—and agreed to begin to fund—his proposals to try to persuade insurgent fighters to give up their fight. For his part, Karzai committed to several specific steps to try to weed out official corruption and to ensure that all future elections are free and fair. However, that pledge was undermined, to an extent, in February 2010 when Karzai issued an election decree that would eliminate the three U.N.-appointed positions for international officials on the ECC. The decree would apply to the National Assembly elections now set for September 18, 2010. However, as a further rebuke to his authority and assertion of its powers, the lower house of Afghanistan's National Assembly voted on March 31, 2010, to reject the decree, although the upper house subsequently upheld the decree. 

Because most insurgents are, like Karzai, ethnic Pashtuns, stabilizing Afghanistan requires winning Pashtun political support for the Afghan government, which requires effective local governing structures; the trend to promote local governing bodies has been accelerated by the Obama Administration. This so-called "civilian uplift" effort has doubled the number of U.S. civilian personnel helping build Afghan governing and security institutions and the economy. That number (now about 975) is expected to rise by another 30% during 2010. For more information, see CRS Report RL30588,
Afghanistan: Post-Taliban Governance, Security, and U.S. Policy; and CRS Report R40747, United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan: Background and Policy Issues.


Date of Report: April 6 2010
Number of Pages: 40
Order Number: RS21922
Price: $29.95

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