Afghanistan at the Brink Again: A Long-Term Solution to a Growing Crisis

By M. Nazif ShahraniSeptember 21, 2014

Afghanistan at the Brink Again: A Long-Term Solution to a Growing Crisis

AFTER 13 YEARS of global intervention and thousands of lives lost, Afghanistan remains a land riven by crisis. The recent presidential election, which independent monitors largely dismissed as a fraud, reveals a country hopelessly lost to a lack of leadership, governance, and security, where narcotics production, trafficking, and lawlessness have supplanted the traditional means of economic growth.

The root causes of these crises are systemic, and beyond the simple, episodic resolutions of international actors. US Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent intervention into the controversial Afghan presidential election is a case in point: it failed, requiring the intervention of a United Nations Secretary-General’s deputy to help prevent a subsequent disaster.

International intervention, whether by the United States or the UN, must instead address the systemic causes of growing crises. If they don’t, the chaos in Afghanistan will push the country and the entire region toward greater violence and instability with serious global consequences.

Afghanistan’s defective constitution of 2004 is a primary cause. The US and UN midwifed it into law, as mandated by the Bonn Agreement of 2001, in the hope of stabilizing the country. For expediency, the Interim Administration headed by Hamid Karzai adopted the old monarchy-era liberal constitution of 1964. Instead of drafting a new one, however, the Karzai-appointed Constitutional Drafting Commission gave the old monarchy constitution a makeover and presented it as the new law of the land.

A leading defender of this flawed document is Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, the declared winner of disputed preliminary election results. The question remains, since the current constitution is the cause of growing crises in the country, can it also be the basis for their solution?

US and EU representatives insisted that some significant democratic rights for women be included, along with recognition of language and religious-sectarian legal rights demanded by smaller demographic groups. Cosmetic references to Islam in the constitution made it appear more “Islamic,” winning approval from jihadi leaders.

Regrettably, the international community, in the name of noninterference in Afghanistan’s internal affairs, looked the other way when — because of meddling by US Special Envoy and later Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, an Afghan American and a Pashtun tribesman — rules for establishing a strong centralized presidential executive were adopted. The resulting executive system failed to implement the newly enshrined constitutional rights.

The structure of governing institutions such as the executive branch is critical for political stability in post-conflict multiethnic countries such as Afghanistan, yet the international community has remained disinterested in the subject. As a result, members of traditional Pashtun ruling tribes, who recaptured positions of power after the overthrow of the Taliban, ended up with the most say. Mr. Karzai, as head of the Transitional Administration, appointed key Pashtun elites to the Constitutional Drafting Commission. These Pashtun elites, using their US, UN, and EU connections, insisted on a strong centralized presidential system of governance akin to the prewar Pashtun-led monarchy, with which to ensure their hold on power. Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, as special adviser to the UN at the time, led the effort.

During the last 13 years, President Karzai has run a corrupt government based on nepotism, graft, and fraud. He ignored the constitution except for the parts on presidential powers and privileges; appointed or approved all significant administrative, judicial, military, and security officials — national, provincial, and even at the district level; and disbursed large amounts of cash, received from foreign countries such as Iran as a gift to his office, to tribal chieftains and religious figures without accountability or record. Such practices have promoted a culture of cronyism, in which all government positions have been commoditized, making Afghanistan among the most corrupt nations in the world.

Not surprisingly, such concentration of powers has made the presidency the ultimate prize. Elections, and their outcomes, have turned into a farce. Secretary Kerry’s proposal for a special Chief Executive Officer position as an extra-constitutional measure for losing presidential candidates was meant to soften the constitutional dictum of “winner take all.” But it is a position with little say over government, holding slight appeal for Ghani’s opponent in the presidential election, Abdullah Abdullah.

In this hopelessly flawed system of governance, the peoples of Afghanistan, both non-Pashtun and non-elite Pashtun, remain subjects over which appointed, avaricious officials from Kabul rule absolutely. Their hopes for becoming empowered citizens enjoying full constitutional rights of community self-governance, and for the right to elect or hire their own civil servants, remain unrealized.

Episodic attempts to resolve crises such as the 2014 presidential election will not solve the growing Taliban insurgency, rabid identity politics, or the culture of nepotism and corruption to which everyday Afghanis remain in bondage.

These growing crises in Afghanistan cannot be solved on the basis of the current constitutional framework. The entrenched power elites also cannot be expected to effect the necessary constitutional reforms of the executive system.

Constitutional reform must begin with empowering Afghan citizens with the right to elect their political leaders at village, district, provincial, and national levels, and recruit professional staff at all administrative levels via committees of peers that are, when possible, vetted by members of elected councils (shura).

Such empowerment will put an end to the nepotistic culture of appointments. It will also reduce or eliminate the blight of cronyism, commoditization of government jobs, corruption, and abuse of power. Hiring civil servants based on merit could also gradually reduce politicization of identities when communities recruit skilled and competent members of other ethnic groups. In time this process could bridge the vast trust gap that currently exists among various ethnic groups, and between them and their own government.

More significantly, if the principles of local self-government at villages, districts, provinces, as well as municipalities are constitutionally adopted, two additional pressing problems in the country could be tackled: the Taliban insurgency and government accountability and transparency.

The Karzai government — while publicly pleading with, even begging, the Taliban to negotiate — has never offered any terms other than a few cabinet posts for their surrender. Enshrining the principles of local self-governance will allow them and the rest of the peoples of Afghanistan to govern themselves. Such a constitutional provision could offer the Taliban an incentive to lay down their arms in return for full participation in the governance of their own localities under national laws.

According to the existing constitution, the central government in Kabul legislates and implements laws via its local branches in provinces, districts, and villages. It also wields oversight power over those laws through officials it has appointed at every level — a system in which government accountability and transparency are hopelessly enervated. Officials accused of breaking the laws in one place are reassigned to another, sometimes with promotion instead of prosecution. If local constituencies instead form their own governments via elections and recruitment systems across the country, the central government in Kabul could be reserved to monitor, instead of control, their implementation.

Local self-governance will enhance the creation of community police forces and local self-defense units, similar to the kind that liberated the country from the Soviet Red Army and the Communist regime. It will also solve another looming crisis: the financially unsustainable large centralized national security force of over 400,000.

These are the times, indeed, that will try the soul of Afghanistan as a nation, as well as those of their international partners of the last decade. Without serious commitment to encouraging the necessary constitutional reforms, and encouragement to do so from the United States and her coalition partners, no long-term solution to the growing crises in Afghanistan is possible. Not doing so will amount, once again, to abandoning the peoples of Afghanistan to the forces of greater chaos and violence.


M. Nazif Shahrani is an Afghan-American professor of anthropology at Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana.

LARB Contributor

M. Nazif Shahrani is an Afghan-American professor of anthropology at Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana.


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