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Friday, January 21, 2011

Afghanistan: Politics, Elections, and Government Performance

Kenneth Katzman
Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs

The limited capacity and widespread corruption of all levels of Afghan governance are growing factors in debate over the effectiveness of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, as expressed in an Administration assessment of policy released December 16, 2010. A competent, respected, and effective Afghan government is considered a major prerequisite for a transition to Afghan lead that is to take place by 2014, a timeframe agreed by the United States, its international partners, and the Afghan government. Afghan governing capacity has increased significantly since the Taliban regime fell in late 2001, but many positions, particularly at the local level, are unfilled or are occupied by figures who are in many ways subordinate to local, unaccountable power brokers. On corruption, the issue that perhaps most divides the United States from the government of President Hamid Karzai, the Afghan leadership is accepting U.S. help to build several emerging anti-corruption institutions, but these same institutions have sometimes caused a Karzai backlash when they have targeted his allies or relatives. Some of the effects of corruption burst into public view in August 2010 when major losses were announced by the large Kabul Bank, in part due to large loans to major shareholders, many of whom are close to Karzai. Some in Congress have sought to link further U.S. aid to clearer progress on the corruption issue.

Purportedly suspicious that U.S. and other donors are trying to undermine his leadership, Karzai has strengthened his bonds to ethnic and political faction leaders who are often involved in illicit economic activity. These alliances, although a consistent feature of Afghan politics long predating the thirty year period of instability there, compound continuing international concerns about Afghan democracy and political transparency. In the August 20, 2009, presidential election, there were widespread charges of fraud, many substantiated by an Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC). The ECC invalidated nearly one-third of President Karzai’s votes, although Karzai’s main challenger dropped out of a runoff and Karzai was declared the winner. He subsequently faced opposition to many of his cabinet nominees by the elected lower house of parliament, and seven permanent ministerial posts remain unfilled. Many of the flaws that plagued the 2009 election recurred in the parliamentary elections held September 18, 2010. The alleged fraud is purportedly being addressed more openly and transparently by Afghan election bodies, but Karzai and his allies appear to be trying to use their institutional powers to alter the results in their favor, provoking a degree of crisis in the runup to the seating of a new parliament on January 20, 2011.

Electoral competition aside, there is growing ethnic and political fragmentation over a variety of issues, including the terms of a potential settlement to the conflict in Afghanistan. Some leaders of minority communities fear a dilution of their role in government under any settlement that reintegrates Afghan militants, who are almost all of Pashtun ethnicity, into the government. Women, who have made substantial gains (including appointment to cabinet posts and governorships and election to parliament) fear their rights may be eroded under any “deal” that might erode legal protections for women. Women have made substantial gains since the fall of the Taliban but many organizations report substantial backsliding in rural areas or in areas where the insurgency operates. Traditional attitudes also continue to prevail, with implications such as slowing efforts to curb such practices as child marriages, court judgments against converts from Islam to Christianity, and Islamic cleric-driven efforts to prevent the sale of alcohol or Westernoriented programming in the burgeoning Afghan media. See also: CRS Report RL30588, Afghanistan: Post-Taliban Governance, Security, and U.S. Policy, by Kenneth Katzman; CRS Report R40747, United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan: Background and Policy Issues, by Rhoda Margesson; and CRS Report R41484, Afghanistan: U.S. Rule of Law and Justice Sector Assistance, by Liana Sun Wyler and Kenneth Katzman. 

Date of Report: January 13, 2011
Number of Pages: 56
Order Number: RS21922
Price: $29.95

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