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Friday, September 16, 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 congressional debate over the effectiveness of U.S. policy in Afghanistan and in implementing 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. While trusting only his closest allies, most of whom are ethnic Pashtuns, Karzai has tried to satisfy leaders of other ethnic and political faction leaders. However, some of these faction leaders oppose Karzai on the grounds that he is too willing to make concessions to insurgent leaders in search of a settlement, and that he has tried to use his office to manipulate Afghan institutions and election results to the advantage of him and his faction. A dispute over the results of the 2010 parliamentary elections paralyzed governance for nearly a year, but appears to have been resolved in August 2011 with Karzai’s suspension of a special court that sought to remove the declared winners of nearly a quarter of the seats of the elected lower house of parliament. Karzai also has tried, through direct denials, to quell assertions by his critics that he wants to stay in office beyond the 2014 expiration of his second term, the limits under the constitution.

Afghan governing capacity has increased significantly since the Taliban regime fell in late 2001, but many positions, particularly at the local level, are unfilled. Many governing functions are performed at least informally by unaccountable power brokers. One such power broker was President Karzai’s half-brother, Ahmad Wali Karzai, who essentially ran southern Afghanistan on the President’s behalf; his assassination on July 12, 2011, left a power vacuum in the south and increased doubts about stability in the context of a U.S. troop drawdown that began in July 2011. 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. Efforts against corruption also run up against an Afghan culture that rewards appointing and letting contracts to relatives and friends. Effects of corruption burst into public view in August 2010 when the large Kabul Bank nearly collapsed due in part to losses on large and apparently improper loans to major shareholders, many of whom are close to Karzai. That issue, too, appeared closer to resolution in August 2011 with the prosecution of several individuals allegedly responsible for the scandal.

Broader issues of human rights often vary depending on the security environment in particular regions, although some trends prevail nationwide. 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: September 7, 2011
Number of Pages: 60
Order Number: RS21922
Price: $29.95

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