November 1, 2010  

Confronting Karzai

U.S. efforts focus too much on Kabul and too little on potential rivals

Much of the U.S. government’s approach to dealing with Afghan President Hamid Karzai has been uneven, often moving between periods of cooperation and confrontation to attempts to work around him. These shifting strategies are due to a number of factors such as changing policy priorities and the normal frictions that come from an alliance, but it is also because of a need to get the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA) to do those things that must be done to achieve our collective goals.

This balancing act of pushing, cajoling, convincing and sidelining Karzai is part of an effort to prompt his government to act on such basic issues as corruption, service delivery, abusive officials, capacity building and other governance responsibilities.

But several factors complicate these goals, including the highly centralized nature of GIRoA, the president’s patron-client relationships, the lack of viable political parties and ethnic divisions within the country. One such effort to prompt GIRoA to action has been working with political opposition leaders. However, these attempts often fall within the well-worn grooves of ethnic identity politics in which predominantly Tajik, Uzbek or Hazara critics are arrayed against a largely united Pashtun alliance abetted by President Karzai’s political patronage network.

Much of the difficulty in fostering a political opposition has to do with the monopolization of patronage, coercion and political power within a centralized state. Even if a political opposition were to form within the Pashtun community, for example, it has so many forces arrayed against it that its chances of success are quite slim.

However, a number of new initiatives have been undertaken in the last two years that might change this political dynamic. If implemented fully, new political space might be created to foster a Pashtun political opposition that can challenge Karzai and his supporters and prompt a more representative and responsive government to meet the needs of the people.

Karzai presides over a government that is highly centralized but whose ability to conduct work in the countryside of Afghanistan is sharply limited due to a lack of trained civil servants, budgetary constraints, literacy challenges and security conditions. But where the state is weak in many areas, it is quite strong in others and has the responsibility of appointing provincial governors and district chiefs, as well as providing central direction to local directorates such as health and education. While some communities are consulted when the central government appoints a local official, this process is generally uneven and is always viewed through the prism of how a local official will further Karzai’s political agenda.

While this might be viewed as a more than appropriate decision for GIRoA to make, practical politics that don’t always have the interests of the people at heart often enter into these calculations. Karzai has a long history of appointing officials who are loyal to him but may not serve the people well and often abuse their authority. Lacking the ability to vote for a local official or even to turn him out of office through a ballot recall, few communities have any ability to check a local official’s power. These poor governance trends are aggravated by the fact that many of these officials have acquired lucrative contracts from coalition forces and have monopolized GIRoA funding. These programs deny many communities access to development money, instead serving to build the patronage networks of privileged officials. Lacking a viable judiciary and political party system, many of these challenges are difficult to confront, especially when GIRoA has abundant resources to convince, co-opt, confront and coerce local leaders who do not support its agenda. Insufficient mentoring of local officials by U.S. personnel makes the problem worse.


A number of new initiatives from the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and the U.S. Embassy, as well as from within GIRoA, offer some hope that many of these conditions will be addressed. Two key projects that are moving forward are reviews of ISAF’s contracting procedures as well as a robust and holistic anti-corruption effort. These dual efforts are very important to crafting the political space required for an opposition to form because they directly confront the existing monopolistic patronage networks attached to Karzai. By providing contracting opportunities beyond a small collection of government officials as well as de-legitimizing existing ones through anti-corruption efforts, separate bases of power can be crafted by political groups not in government. Additionally, groups that suffered under current local leaders will find new opportunities for influence through the discrediting of Karzai’s powerbrokers. These efforts will not end Karzai’s political patronage network, but they will do much to reduce its overwhelming power.

Another initiative that is coming from the U.S. Embassy is a robust $200 million municipalities program focused on the capitals and major cities of nearly two dozen provinces. This multiyear program seeks to significantly increase the capacity and service delivery of local municipal governments, in part by taking advantage of their ability under Afghan law to levy taxes on local communities to support their efforts. This local governance strengthening program could potentially be improved through the final adoption of GIRoA’s new subnational governance policy, which was approved by Karzai’s cabinet in March. While 18 legal changes still need to take place for it to go into effect, it will eventually do a number of things to broaden political authority in the provinces as well as providing new opportunities for enterprising politicians. The policy will strengthen the powers of the governor and give him more authority to coordinate the provincial directorates in his province, will make the provincial police chief answer to the governor, establish accountability rules and codes of conduct, empower the Provincial Council by giving it more of a monitoring role, decentralize some authorities to the provincial government, allow limited provincial budgeting, formalize the powers of municipalities, and give the Civil Service Commission responsibility to appoint deputy governors and district administrators.

Another substantial governance program that will improve local institutions is the District Delivery Program (DDP). This program is run by GIRoA, but it has the active backing of the U.S. Embassy as well as ISAF. It is essentially a synchronized effort to provide enduring local security along with good governance efforts, such as a competent district chief working with a local assembly, along with robust service delivery. Additionally, the DDP will begin the process of hiring and training civil servants to fill local civil service positions. These various changes will provide a number of new opportunities for local political leaders, whether they are affiliated with Karzai or not, to exercise political authority and to create a record of public accomplishment that may translate into national political influence. However, in order for these various programs and initiatives to take place, it is imperative that we change how we approach good governance in Afghanistan.


Much of our overall approach to dealing with GIRoA is Kabul-centric and many aspects of our diplomatic mission, such as the political section and the Interagency Provincial Affairs Office, are focused more on what is going on in the capital rather than in the provinces, districts and villages of Afghanistan. Additionally, our general approach to influencing GIRoA does not capitalize on other institutions such as parliament or try to organize and engage local governance institutions to put pressure on the central government such as engaging with mayors, district chiefs and tribal leaders. When these efforts do occur, they are generally nonsystematic and not part of a broader strategy to craft political space for political dissenters. A good portion of our overall approach to good governance is completely ignorant of local politics and is so influenced by Karzai that we are often oblivious about possible opposition figures who want to work with the U.S. but due to their lack of access to U.S. officials don’t know how to leverage their public support for the common good. Additionally, with the frequent rotations of embassy personnel and the fact that they receive up to five rest breaks over one year, our diplomatic officials never have a good opportunity to move beyond gaining situational awareness and get to wisdom about the politics and personalities of the country. We must revamp how we engage political leaders at the subnational level in order to take advantage of new political opportunities that will be created and to empower local political actors.

Good governance efforts undertaken by ISAF and the U.S. government in Afghanistan often take place in the vacuum of politics, are often cumbersome, poorly coordinated and under-resourced, and focus too much on events in Kabul at the expense of the countryside. Aspects of Afghanistan’s constitution and Karzai’s political patronage network limit the ability of a loyal political opposition to rise that is not rooted in Afghanistan’s ethnic differences.

Karzai, of course, has a strong interest in making sure a political opposition does not get organized. Meanwhile, many U.S. efforts to further good governance reflexively do what is most comfortable to our governance bureaucracies by focusing on events in Kabul and do not undertake the critical work that needs to take place in the countryside where the people live. Yet for most Afghans, GIRoA is a far-off entity in Kabul and local government is a tribal jirga or shura and an appointed district chief.

The seeds of change in Kabul will only come about if we support local political leaders who earn the support of their people through good leadership and positive performance. We must do better if want to craft a viable, representative and responsive national government in Afghanistan that meets the needs of its people. We must empower local Pashtun leaders who are loyal to Afghanistan but disagree about the governance practices of Karzai. It is only by empowering them that we can hope for better performance from GIRoA at the national level that will be better able to address the needs of the people in the countryside. AFJ

DAN GREEN is a visiting fellow at Aeneas Group International. He completed a tour in Afghanistan with the Navy as the International Security Assistance Joint Command liaison officer to the U.S. Embassy’s Office of Interagency Provincial Affairs.