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Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Afghanistan: Politics, Elections, and Government Performance

Kenneth Katzman
Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs

The capacity, transparency, and legitimacy of Afghan governance are considered crucial to Afghan stability after U.S.-led NATO forces turn over the security mission to Afghan leadership by the end of 2014. The size and capability of the Afghan governing structure has increased significantly since the Taliban regime fell in late 2001, but the government remains weak and rampant with corruption. Even as the government has struggled to widen its writ, President Hamid Karzai has concentrated substantial presidential authority through his powers of appointment at all levels. But, he is constitutionally term-limited; presidential and provincial elections are scheduled for April 5, 2014, and Afghanistan is beginning to transition from the Karzai era. Several major figures—some close to Karzai and others opposed—have registered their tickets, several of which include significant faction leaders long accused of human rights abuses. Some candidates are concerned that Karzai will use state machinery to favor a particular candidate. Fraud in two successive elections (for president in 2009 and parliament in 2010) was extensively documented, but Afghan officials, scrutinized by opposition ties, civil society organizations, and key donor countries, have taken some steps to improve election oversight for the April 2014 elections.

Fears about the election process are fanned by the scant progress in reducing widespread nepotism and other forms of corruption. President Karzai has accepted U.S. help to build emerging anti-corruption institutions, but these same bodies have faltered from lack of support from senior Afghan government leaders who oppose prosecuting their political allies. At a donors’ conference in Tokyo on July 8, 2012, donors pledged to aid Afghanistan’s economy through at least 2017, on the condition that Afghanistan takes concrete, verifiable action to rein in corruption. Afghan progress on that issue was assessed relatively unfavorably at the end of a Tokyo process review meeting in Kabul attended by major donors on July 3, 2013.

No matter how the Afghan leadership succession process works out, there is concern among many observers that governance will founder as the United States and its partners reduce their involvement in Afghanistan. An informal power structure consisting of regional and ethnic leaders have always been at least as significant a factor in governance as the formal power structure, and they will likely bring the votes of their ethnic and regional followers to the presidential tickets some of them have joined. The faction leaders also lead or can recruit armed fighters, and several are reviving their armed militias in the event the end of the international security mission in 2014 produces instability. However, an increase in the influence of faction leaders could produce even more corruption, arbitrary administration of justice, and human rights abuses than has been the case since the international intervention in 2001.

President Karzai is appealing to nationalist sentiment to attract Taliban support to rejoin Afghan politics, but Afghan civil society activists, particularly women’s groups, assert that a full reintegration of the Taliban into Afghan politics could reverse some of the human and women’s rights gains since 2001. Those gains have come despite the persistence of traditional attitudes and Islamic conservatism in many parts of Afghanistan—attitudes that cause the judicial and political system to tolerate child marriages and imprisonment of women who flee domestic violence. Islam and tradition has also frequently led to persecution of converts from Islam to Christianity, and to curbs on the sale of alcohol and on Western-oriented programming in the Afghan media. See also CRS Report RL30588, Afghanistan: Post-Taliban Governance, Security, and U.S. Policy, by Kenneth Katzman; and CRS Report R41484, Afghanistan: U.S. Rule of Law and Justice Sector Assistance, by Liana Sun Wyler and Kenneth Katzman. 

Date of Report: October 10, 2013
Number of Pages: 62
Order Number: RS21922
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