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Thursday, May 10, 2012

Afghanistan: Politics, Elections, and Government Performance

Kenneth Katzman
Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs

Building capacity and limiting corruption at all levels of Afghan governance are crucial to the success of a planned transition from U.S.-led NATO forces to Afghan security leadership. 

  • The capacity of the formal Afghan governing structure has increased significantly since the Taliban regime fell in late 2001, but many positions at the local level are unfilled. Even though the formal governing structure remains weak, President Hamid Karzai’s Afghan and some U.S. critics assert that he has concentrated authority in Kabul through vast powers of appointment at all levels— appointment power given him by the Afghan constitution.
  • Addressing these criticism, Karzai has publicly and repeatedly denied assertions by opposing faction leaders that he wants to stay in office beyond the 2014 expiration of his second term and said in April 2012 that he is considering trying to move the next presidential election to 2013. Still, international efforts to curb fraud in two successive elections (for president in 2009 and parliament in 2010) largely failed and many believe election oversight has improved little since.
  • Nepotism and political considerations in hiring are entrenched in Afghan culture and limit development of a competent bureaucracy, as does widespread illiteracy. 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. 
There is concern among many observers that U.S. efforts to help build Afghan governance, democracy, civil society, and rule of law could founder as the United States and its partners seek to wind down their involvement in Afghanistan by the end of 2014. Some argue that the informal power structure is a more important factor in governance than the formal power structure and will compensate for a diminution in the power of Kabul. Karzai has turned the informal power structure to his advantage by relying on the loyalty of several close, ethnic Pashtun allies while both engaging and dividing the minority ethnic and political faction leaders that generally oppose him. Some non-Pashtun faction leaders oppose Karzai on the grounds that he is too willing to make concessions to insurgent leaders in search of a settlement. There are fears that a reintegration of the Taliban into Afghan politics will further set back progress in human rights and the rights of women, and boost ethnic Pashtuns at the expense of the other minorities.

Broader issues of human rights often vary depending on the security environment in particular regions, although some trends prevail nationwide. The State Department and outside human rights reports on Afghanistan attribute many of the human rights abuses in Afghanistan to overall lack of security and to traditional conservative attitudes still prevalent. 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 contribute to the judicial and political system’s continued toleration of child marriages, imprisonment of women who flee domestic violence, judgments against converts from Islam to Christianity, and curbs on the sale of alcohol and Western-oriented programming in the 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 1, 2012
Number of Pages: 66
Order Number: RS21922
Price: $29.95

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