The next Afghan presidential election is currently slated for 2014, an uninspiring prospect given the sky-high levels of corruption, nepotism, and patronage that beleaguers the Afghan political system. To make things worse, President Hamid Karzai has suggested holding the elections in 2013 to avoid an overlap with the planned end of NATO's combat mission. And there is still no functional plan in place for a smooth transfer of political power to a post-Karzai government.
The challenges of a successful political transition in Afghanistan are multiple. The Afghan government has not yet defined a plausible political strategy for its sustainability after 2014. Furthermore, the Afghan and U.S. governments have failed to develop a mature political class from which the Afghan people can democratically select their leaders. This is further aggravated by officials' failure to establish adept civil services in Afghanistan. As a result, the largely corrupt and inept Afghan civil service is characterized by and operates under a vast network of political patronage and nepotism, leaving it incapable of delivering basic services to the Afghan people. The durability of the Afghan political system requires a feasible political reform agenda that addresses endemic corruption and nepotism, and a political settlement process with an inclusive internal Afghan dialogue.
Tackling these shortcomings are fundamental to Afghanistan's future generation of leadership, and there are growing concerns in Kabul that President Karzai may attempt to enter the 2014 election, despite being constitutionally barred, and his repeated statements that he will not seek a third term. Earlier, the concern, especially among the Afghan opposition, was that President Karzai would amend Afghanistan's election laws, which currently prevent him from seeking another term in office. However, speculations now abound that Karzai will handpick a successor who will serve as president while he runs the show from behind the scenes. If employed, this arrangement - similar to the one between Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin - effectively keeps the seat warm until Karzai's return. At present, there is no provision in the Afghan Constitution stipulating that Karzai cannot return to the presidency after a short absence. Depending on whom Karzai picks as his successor, such a move will likely spark outrage among many in Afghanistan, specifically among members of the so-called "loyal" opposition group, the erstwhile Northern Alliance.
The late Burhanuddin Rabbani, a former Afghan president and head of the High Peace Council (HPC), was previously touted to succeed Karzai largely due to his role as an interlocutor between the Afghan government and opposition groups. With Rabbani no longer in play, some of the other names currently being tossed around are: Atta Mohammad Noor, a Tajik and current governor of Balkh province; Farooq Wardak, a Pashtun and the current Minister of Education; Mohammad Hanif Atmar, a prominent Pashtun and former Minister of Interior and Education; and Ashraf Ghani, a well-known Pashtun, one-time presidential contender, and former Minister of Finance who is now chairman of Afghanistan's security transition commission. Rumors also abound that President Karzai has been grooming Qayum Karzai, his multi-millionaire older brother who presently dominates most of Afghanistan's security, construction, and transportation sectors, to succeed him. A one-time restaurant owner in Maryland and now an unrivaled Afghan powerbroker, Qayum is said to be the man behind all key cabinet and provincial level appointments in Afghanistan.
However, President Karzai's first choice and personal favorite appears to be Education Minister Farooq Wardak, due in large part to the confidence and trust President Karzai has placed in him. If President Karzai chooses to publicly announce his support for Wardak's candidacy, it could significantly raise Wardak's current stature, and garner widespread public support, particularly among the Pashtun voters who would most likely rally to get him elected. The 2014 elections are central to future political stability of the country. With the anticipated election irregularities and several in Karzai's inner clique loathe to forgo the power they currently enjoy, the election will test the trust and confidence of the Afghan people in the governance system and their future participation in Afghanistan's political process. While it is too early to anticipate, President Karzai's voluntary departure before the election will not only sit positively with many Afghans, but will also leave him a respectable legacy in Afghan history.
There is also a widespread perception in Afghanistan that the United States acts as kingmaker, and whomever the U.S. supports will become the next president. Whether or not that narrative is true, the United States can help encourage young and educated new leaders to become involved in politics, and advise the Afghan government to disqualify corrupt individuals.
Some American officials have recently increased outreach to Afghan political figures, which appears to have somehow emboldened the kingmaker perceptions among Afghans. Senior members of the U.S. Congress reached out to the members of the Northern Alliance during a recent visit to Kabul, riling many, including President Karzai. The emphasis of this political outreach effort stressed a peculiar narrative of decentralization that contradicts the policy of the Obama administration. This type of power devolvement includes, among other things, granting legislative power to the provincial councils, and having elected provincial governors rather than presidential appointees. These elected officials would also have all powers invested in them, including the ability to levy their own taxes and make key provincial appointments.
Yet, this strategy also entails accepting considerable risks.
Giving provincial governors the authority to hire and fire civil servants, and levy their own taxes with no input or control from Kabul risks creating and supporting local "strongmen" and parallel power structures that could be potentially destabilizing. Such an arrangement also risks turning up the heat on the already simmering ethnic tensions, and could essentially create a Pashtun-dominated "Pashtunistan" separated from a confederation of provinces dominated by ethnic Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras. It is a strategy of soft partition that effectively opens the door for ethnic cleansing. A cursory look at history, including that of India, Bosnia, Palestine, and Cyprus suggests that the partition of mixed political entities has almost always been accompanied or preceded by ethnic cleansing and/or colossal ethnic violence. Afghanistan's population is heterogeneous, and any proposals, however attractive, for the country's de facto or de jure partition through decentralization appear not only impractical, but also irresponsible. So while U.S. support in Afghanistan over the past decade has been invaluable, and U.S. officials have the right to criticize the Afghan government, any such calls, or the supporting of one faction over another currently displayed by certain members of the U.S. Congress, amount to meddling in Afghanistan's domestic affairs and must be avoided.
At a time when the U.S. is in need of widespread public support on the Afghan mission, the administration's tone on Afghan governance is feeble. It is time that the U.S. starts investing in and nurturing the future generation of capable Afghan leaders through education, leadership training, and foreign exposure, rather than supporting the usual unholy alliance of corrupt or militant pro-American individuals it has supported in the past. This includes supporting key moderate and visionary leaders, technocrats, capable civil servants in each of the factions, as well as bringing new, dynamic, educated and impartial young leaders into the political sphere that will lead the country into a positive future. The 2014 election is of crucial significance. Real and tangible steps must be taken towards guaranteeing that Afghanistan's future does not once again fall into the hands of warlords, drug kingpins, or jihadi leaders that will most certainly compromise the freedom and security of Afghan people.
Javid Ahmad is program coordinator with the Asia Program of the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Washington, D.C. The views reflected here are his own.
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