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Wednesday, June 16, 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." President Obama reportedly pressed Karzai to move more decisively to address his government's deficiencies, particularly corruption, during a March 28, 2010, visit to Afghanistan. The Obama visit may have contributed to two subsequent statements by Karzai accusing the international community of exercising undue pressure on him and on Afghanistan. These issues were muted during Karzai's May 10-14, 2010, visit to Washington, D.C., and produced a trip widely described by officials on both sides as highly productive, symbolized by a commitment to renew and expand a U.S.-Afghanistan "strategic partnership" by the end of 2010.

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 fill 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 an 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 11 permanent ministerial posts remain unfilled. Most of the well-regarded economic ministers were confirmed.

Karzai has tried to rebuild international support for his leadership by announcing new anticorruption steps as well as by formulating proposals to try to persuade insurgent fighters to give up their fight. Several donors at a major international conference on Afghanistan in Britain on January 28, 2010, endorsed—and agreed to begin to fund—Karzai's proposals, which are to be discussed at an Afghan consultative "peace jirga during June 2-4, 2010. However, concerns remain about whether Karzai is committed to ensuring that the upcoming parliamentary elections, to be held September 18, 2010, will correct previous flaws and prove free and fair. Confidence was undermined, to an extent, in February 2010 when Karzai issued an election decree to govern the National Assembly elections on September 18, 2010. The decree eliminated the three U.N.- appointed positions for international officials on the ECC, although a subsequent compromise restored two non-Afghan ECC seats.

Because most insurgents are, like Karzai, ethnic Pashtuns, stabilizing Afghanistan requires winning Pashtun political support for the Afghan government. The international community appears to agree that doing so requires building effective governing structures at the local level. The Obama Administration has emphasized empowering local governing bodies in part by expanding the presence of U.S. government civilians as advisors outside Kabul. The Administration also has appointed senior civilian officials to work jointly with their military counterparts in the five regional commands around Afghanistan. For more information, see CRS Report RL30588, Afghanistan: Post-Taliban Governance, Security, and U.S. Policy, by Kenneth Katzman, and CRS Report R40747, United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan: Background and Policy Issues, by Rhoda Margesson.

Date of Report: June 2, 2010
Number of Pages: 42
Order Number: RS21922
Price: $29.95

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