Afghanistan’s Failing Institutions


With August 20th drawing closer, Hamid Karzai’s marked absence last night from Afghanistan’s first televised presidential debate is a significant setback to the legitimacy of the nation’s fledgling democratic process, and is indicative of his intention to retain office. Running for his third term, Karzai’s campaign practices and election processes have already come under heavy UN criticism, and former high ranking officials of his own administration have likened his political ambitions to Mugabe’s.

Despite harsh censure and plummeting approval ratings, late June polls by the International Republican Institute indicate that just under a third of Afghans are considering voting for him (down from the 54% he received in ’04 cycle), with Abduallah Abduallah a distant second at 7% and Ghani at only 3%, whose campaign, incidentally, is being managed by James Carville. However, Karzai’s wide margin will probably not be enough to stave off his opposition: if he fails to get over 50% of the vote in the first round, a run off election will be held between him and the candidate with the 2nd highest number of votes. Fears abound within his campaign that second round elections will mean defeat. His strongest demographic is rural voters, who have enjoyed tangible gains through foreign aid and improved governance. However, a sharp pre-election spike in violence has severely eroded his popularity among this constituency; this violence is also expected to significantly reduce voter turn-out in the Pashtun areas that would have been another Karzai stronghold. Additionally, the United States has cut him loose, and speculation is rife that without US support in the face of declining public approval, a first-round loss will break the Karzai spell. Relatedly, NYT ran a front-page article today on Abduallah Abduallah’s gains on Karzai.

To prevent a first-round loss, his campaign has allegedly been using a variety of state resources to promote his bid. An interesting statistic from the Independent Election Commission illustrates his appropriation of RTA (Radio Television Afghanistan, a state-run TV station) air-time: Karzai receives roughly 4 times as much media coverage as Abduallah, and 9 times as much as Ghani does; the other 38 candidates get virtually no mention. Following on the heels on the Commission’s report, the Information Ministry ordered the blocking of four websites critical of the President. A spokesperson for Karzai’s election campaign was quoted saying that the sites were shut down “on our request”, a statement he later retracted. The UN reports that district officials have been ordered by Karzai appointees to ensure attendance at his rallies as well as voter turn-out on election day. His campaign officials have also been accused of putting up campaign posters in Kabul a month before campaign season began; tribal leaders report being offered governmental positions in return for votes, and earlier in his current term, he redrafted the rules for presidential candidacy, restricting it to those with well-established political capital and infrastructure. The list continues.

This manipulation of the state apparatus should be a specially worrisome development for Pakistan. Several decades of institutional corruption have already rendered the country’s administrative system pervasive with misunderstandings of the limits of public office. A UN report indicates that a good number of governors extorting district subordinates to produce voters are actually acting without orders from Karzai – they consider it within the limits of tolerable misuse of authority. And allegations of improper election processes against the President’s office certainly do not bode well for the future of the Afghanistan’s political institutions. Regardless of the the outcome of the election, the damage done to institutional integrity and faith in the public office will likely remain in the Afghani political conscience long after August 20th. Without trust in the public office and a sense of the responsibilities of incumbency in public servants, the sort of political instability that allows movements of alternative governance – insurgencies – can be expected to continue to thrive. And for Obama’s current troop-surge policy for Afghanistan, that send 17,000 troops in February despite Pakistani protests and without Karzai’s approval, this spells a prolonged if not increased presence, a move that will send militants eastwards into Pakistan.

Pakistan has continued to express its frustration with this US strategy, fearful that as its own forces open up more battlefronts across Subah-e-Sarhad (NWFP) to prevent the Taliban forces from coalescing in single region (as told by General Ather Abbas), militants seeking a safer territories will pour into restive Baluchistan or Punjab, where sporadic incidents have already been recorded. Meanwhile, the Pakistani military and civilian government stand accused by the US and their own community of targeting only those Taliban elements whose ambitions threaten the country’s integrity, while continuing to countenance those it intends to use as auxiliaries in the battle for influence in Afghanistan.

However, as Pakistan is fast learning, managing its non-state forces is a dangerous balancing act, and it should be watching activities across its western border closely to ensure growing political dissatisfaction in Afghanistan is properly addressed within Pakistan’s own borders.