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Monday, October 1, 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 nepotism is entrenched in Afghan culture and other forms of corruption are widespread. Afghan 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. At a donors’ conference in Tokyo on July 8, 2012, donors pledged to aid Afghanistan’s economy through at least 2017, provided Afghanistan takes concrete, verifiable action to rein in corruption. On July 26, 2012, Karzai appeared to try to meet his pledges to the Tokyo conference by issuing a “decree on administrative reforms”—a document of sweeping policy directives intended to curb corruption. Partly because of corruption in the Afghan security forces, on August 4, 2012, the National Assembly voted to remove the ministers of interior and of defense; they have been replaced.

Even though the government is weak, President Hamid Karzai has tried to concentrate authority in Kabul through his constitutional powers of appointment at all levels. Karzai has publicly denied assertions by opposing faction leaders that he wants to stay in office beyond the 2014 expiration of his second term, but he is said to be trying to identify and support an acceptable successor. International efforts to curb fraud in two successive elections (for president in 2009 and parliament in 2010) largely failed and many believe election oversight will be little improved for the 2014 election, although civil society groups are trying to ensure robust competition and electoral fairness.

There is concern among many observers that fragile governance will founder as the United States and its partners wind down their involvement in Afghanistan by the end of 2014. Some argue that the informal power structure, which has always been at least as significant a factor in governance as the formal power structure, will sustain governance beyond 2014 should formal governing structures falter. However, that outcome might produce even more corruption and arbitrary administration of justice than is the case now as major faction leaders gain power. Karzai has failed to marginalize these ethnic faction leaders, in part because they have large constituencies, but he relies more closely on the loyalty of several close, ethnic Pashtun allies, particularly those from the Qandahar area. The non-Pashtun faction leaders generally oppose Karzai’s willingness 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 Pashtun power.

Broader issues of human rights often vary depending on the security environment in particular regions, although some trends prevail nationwide. Women, media professionals, and civil society groups have made substantial gains since the fall of the Taliban, but traditional attitudes 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: September 20, 2012
Number of Pages: 67
Order Number: RS21922
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