Search Penny Hill Press

Thursday, May 12, 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 factors in debate over the effectiveness of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan and in planning for the July 2011 beginning of a transition to Afghan security leadership. That transition is to be completed by the end of 2014, a timeframe agreed to by the United States, its international partners, and the Afghan government—although some believe that timetable might be accelerated in the aftermath of the May 1, 2011, U.S. killing of Al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden.

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. Widespread illiteracy and ethnic and factional ties limit the development of a competent bureaucracy, although U.S. and other programs are attempting to address these deficiencies. On corruption, President Hamid Karzai has accepted U.S. help to build emerging anti-corruption 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 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 one-third 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 sought, without success, to use their institutional powers to alter the results in their favor.

Still, the State Department human rights report for 2010 attributes many of the human rights abuses in Afghanistan to overall lack of security, traditional conservative attitudes that are widely prevalent, and the weakness of government control over outlying localities. Women have made substantial gains in government and the private sector 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, slowing of efforts to curb such practices as child marriages, and contributing to 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: May 5, 2011
Number of Pages: 58
Order Number: RS21922
Price: $29.95

Follow us on TWITTER at or #CRSreports

Document available via e-mail as a pdf file or in paper form.
To order, e-mail Penny Hill Press or call us at 301-253-0881. Provide a Visa, MasterCard, American Express, or Discover card number, expiration date, and name on the card. Indicate whether you want e-mail or postal delivery. Phone orders are preferred and receive priority processing.