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Thursday, February 17, 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 leadership that is to take place by 2014, a timeframe agreed to 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 governing functions are performed by 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 emerging anticorruption institutions, but these same institutions have sometimes caused a Karzai backlash when they have targeted his allies or relatives. Effects of corruption burst into public view in August 2010 when the large Kabul Bank nearly collapsed due in part to losses on 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 might be willing to undermine the political process to gain or retain power. These alliances, although a consistent feature of Afghan politics long predating the 30-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 onethird of President Karzai’s votes, although Karzai’s main challenger dropped out of a runoff and Karzai was declared the winner. Many of the flaws that plagued the 2009 election recurred in the parliamentary elections held September 18, 2010. The alleged fraud was purportedly addressed openly by Afghan election bodies, but Karzai and his allies apparently sought, unsuccessfully, to use their institutional powers to annul the results or alter them in their favor. This provoked a crisis in which declared winners threatened to convene in defiance of Karzai; he bowed to the pressure and swore in the declared winners on January 26, 2011. The new upper house has not been seated to date.

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 in government and the private sector, fear their rights may be abridged 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, particularly 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 cleric-driven curbs on the sale of alcohol and Western-oriented 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: February 10, 2011
Number of Pages: 58
Order Number: RS21922
Price: $29.95

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