Post-Intervention Afghanistan: Competitive Neopatrimonialism and Persistent Insecurity

The inauguration of the new Afghan national assembly on December 19, 2005 marked the official conclusion of the Bonn peace process as Afghanistan met its milestones. UNAMA’s role in the aftermath of the Bonn process was to support the new government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan in its various dimensions of peacebuilding, including the identification of a new security framework, the improvement of governance, and the promotion of development. A new roadmap, known as the “Afghanistan Compact,” was drawn up at the London Conference on Afghanistan held in early 2006. At this gathering over sixty countries and international agencies committed themselves, in partnership with Afghan government leaders, to the principles and targets laid out in the Compact, which was to guide the international community’s support to Afghanistan in state capacitybuilding and the institutionalization of democracy. The express goal of the compact was to rely more heavily on Afghanistan’s nascent institutions, with pledges of financial support from the international community.

Political stabilization, implicitly the international community’s overarching goal in Afghanistan, has proceeded in fits and starts. Many have guessed that the fragmented parliament that resulted from the single non-transferable voting system adopted for the 2005 parliamentary elections was what Karzai intended in order to keep the executive stronger than the legislature: the elections led to three roughly equalsized blocs in the assembly - one pro-government, one comprising the opposition parties, and one unaligned.[1] Even for the supposedly empowered executive, however, a fragmented parliament can make the formation of government and legislative politics very hard to handle. Legislative gridlock is undesirable everywhere and in post-conflict situations can even be dangerous given the immediate need for effective governance to underpin political stability. Constitutional experts consider a stable party system to be an asset in post-conflict democracies. The SNTV system typically impedes party-building, making electoral alliances personality-driven and beholden to regional and other particularist power bases rather than being formed on the basis of programmatic and collectivist appeals articulated by ideologically coherent parties. The parliamentary fragmentation induced by the SNTV system impeded Karzai’s reform agenda, since in practice it meant that for each executive initiative he had to assemble anew a legislative coalition through piecemeal deals and logrolling.[2] Moreover, since Karzai was unable to maintain a coalition of support for his program, the Afghan parliament was able to assert itself vis-a-vis the government. In May 2006, for example, the legislative body approved most of Karzai’s proposed cabinet - but only after refusing to rubberstamp the whole body and insisting on individual hearings for each member.

Power tussles with parliament aside, Karzai acted to make the cabinet more his own by dropping the powerful trio of Panjshir Valley leaders who dominated the political and military scene after the Taliban’s defeat and finally freeing himself from accusations that his government was under the control of the Northern Alliance faction. The move was seen as a step away from the “compromise government” that Karzai and his foreign allies built initially as a power-sharing mechanism. Later iterations of the cabinet included more technocrats as well as some remaining leaders of ethnic and political groups from around the country. Bringing local leaders to govern in the capital had the added benefit of neutralizing their influence in their regional strongholds. Thus, in the mid-2000s, it seemed that the Karzai administration was making progress in curbing the most egregious displays of patronage - for example, by moving Ismail Khan out of the governorship of Herat and into the post of Minister of Energy and Water, by demoting Gul Agha Shirzai from the governorship of Kandahar province to that of Nangahar province, and by removing Marshal Mohammed Fahim from his post as defense minister. By later in the decade, however, more ominous patterns of neopatrimonialism had asserted themselves.

Core choices made about Afghanistan’s institutional architecture during the Bonn process and under UNAMA’s supervision have had lasting effects on both state capacity-building and democratic consolidation in the country. Analysts have argued that the international community’s preference for a “broad-based,” compromise government over the course of the Bonn political process had the drawback of setting aside the pursuit of federalism, which many believed would have been a more natural fit for delivering public services and building governing legitimacy in the ethnoregionally diverse country. Federalism proponents argued that political contestation could have been transferred fruitfully to places other than Kabul, thereby recognizing the true loci of power - military, political, economic, and administrative - in the country. In attempting to create a strongly centralized national- unity government - which grew, in turn, out of UN efforts to solve the civil war dating back to the 1990s - critics argued that the international community fell prey to wishful thinking rather than designing appropriate institutions for the fissiparous reality of Afghan politics.[3]

Others have maintained that the appropriate solution to state collapse in Afghanistan was indeed a centralized state that could build effectiveness and maintain a credible monopoly on violence. In this view, decentralized or federal systems create insurmountable center- region tensions.[4] The highly centralized, unitary state model was intended to bring the provinces, once and for all, firmly under Kabul’s political, administrative, and financial control - something that had not been achieved in modern Afghanistan. Many Afghan policymakers and observers themselves preferred the strong central state model, believing that persuading local strongmen to incorporate their power bases into a Kabul-led statebuilding process was an effective way to neutralize their extralegal power, and that decentralization or devolution could come later if still desired. Amin Saikal, for example, emphasized that meaningfully incorporating Afghanistan’s “micro-societies” into the new fabric of the state was essential but possible within either a centralized or devolved state structure.64

One of the key aims of the broad-based coalition idea advocated by the international community was to ease fears that Pashtuns, who accounted for two-fifths of the Afghan population, making them the largest single ethnic group, would grow too strong. Pashtuns, on the other hand, believed that the concept of broad-based government was actually “code for rule by non-Pashtun figures from the old anti- Taliban coalition, the Northern Alliance,”[5] and that the Interim and Transitional Administrations overly represented these other groups. During the transitional period precisely the ethnic dynamic that national unity government proponents were trying to avoid was set in place, whereby Pashtuns, with the encouragement of Karzai, reasserted themselves politically and aroused the suspicions of Afghanistan’s other major ethnic groups. The October 2004 presidential elections took on a significantly ethnic cast as a result of this ethnic electioneering, with Tajik, Hazara, and Uzbek leaders leading the vote in provinces dominated by their own ethnic groups.

In a promising sign for political institutionalization, some of these leaders - the Tajik Yunus Qanooni and the Uzbek Rashid Dostum foremost among them - would later form political parties in the run-up to the September 2005 parliamentary elections in order to broaden their appeal across ethnic lines. Despite the reluctance of Karzai and other senior officials to see the formation of parties for fear that they would deepen ethnic divisions, more than fifty parties registered prior to those elections. A few months ahead of the parliamentary elections, Qanooni announced the formation of an opposition front to compete in the elections, intended to forge a serious opposition bloc to Karzai’s government.[6] Such moves toward party-building and other elements of political institutionalization could represent important advances in terms of behavioral consolidation of democracy among core political elites.

Yet the perception of corruption and personal empowerment and enrichment has also been a constant in the narrative of contemporary Afghan democracy. In August 2009, Hamid Karzai failed to secure an outright majority in the presidential election, being dogged by accusations of corruption in his administration and concerns about his attempts to secure victory by allying with unsavory warlords with documented human rights abuses. He nonetheless won re-election when the runner-up, Abdullah Abdullah, refused to participate in the second- round run-off due to widely acknowledged problems of voter intimidation, media censorship, and electoral fraud perpetrated by government

Table 5.3 Electoral results in Afghanistan, 2005—2014

September 2005 Parliamentary

August 2009 Presidential

September 2010 Parliamentary

June 2014 Presidential, second-round runoff

High degree of vote

fragmentation due to SNTV system; three roughly equal-sized blocs: one progovernment, one

supporting opposition parties, and one unaligned

Hamid Karzai

  • (independent) 50 percent Abdullah Abdullah (United National Front)
  • 31 percent *Second-round runoff vote scheduled for Nov 2009 canceled after Abdullah refused to participate.

High degree of vote

fragmentation due to SNTV system; three roughly equal-sized blocs: one progovernment, one

supporting opposition parties, and one unaligned

Ashraf Ghani

(independent) 56 percent Abdullah Abdullah (National Coalition of Afghanistan) 44 percent * Abdullah was a clear leader in the first round of voting and alleged voter fraud in the second round.

supporters. (Official electoral results from 2005 to 2014 are presented in Table 5.3.)

Even in the face of elite acrimony around elections, the consolidation of democratic attitudes among the Afghan public showed early signs of progress, in that Afghans quickly embraced the concepts of elections and democracy. Over the course of successive elections, voter turnout has remained quite high, although it fell from 84 percent in the 2004 presidential election to just about 60 percent in the 2014 presidential election, in part due to increased Taliban intimidation in the run-up to the latter. Richard Ponzio’s 2005 public opinion survey also found significant internalization of democratic norms.67 But, in a sign that power is still bifurcated between formal and informal, Afghans’ voting behavior does not necessarily match with their views on where power lies in their society. Ponzio’s survey data also revealed that


Ponzio 2011.

religious leaders were seen as having the most power and influence in local communities, followed by roughly equal perceptions of militia commanders, provincial and local government administrators, and tribal leaders, with elected officials coming in a relatively distant last in power and influence perceptions.[7]

The need to neutralize or incorporate alternative loci of power in the political system continues to be the major obstacle besetting both statebuilding and democratic consolidation in Afghanistan. While provincial governors and district officers are appointed by the center, most governors received their posts in the interim, transitional, and subsequent administrations because of their independent and traditional power bases. Andrew Reynolds noted that of the 249 legislators elected to the first national assembly 40 were commanders still linked to militias;[8] moreover, nearly half of all the original crop of MPs were mujahideen veterans of the war against the Soviets in the 1980s.[9] The persistent and instrumental patron-client culture associated with the militias has yet to be replaced by government and civil society institutions that offer public services in an accountable and programmatic manner. A frequent complaint of Afghans living in Kandahar, for example, is that life has reverted to the chaos under warring mujahedeen factions.[10]

Most subnational leaders, initially appointed in recognition of their power and granted renewed legitimacy through the transitional governance process, have further entrenched their predatory activities and bolstered their patronage networks. These warlords have developed sophisticated political-economic strategies to sustain their power bases, managing their own resources and position in regional economic networks, both licit and illicit, while also tapping into international support.[11] Dipali Mukhopadhyay notes, however, that there is important variation in terms of the behavior of local strongmen and their strategy for governing provincial areas, when granted formal power by the central government to do so.73 She observes how some of the government’s most formidable would-be competitors, the regional warlords, have turned into valuable partners in governing the country and establishing a political order that, albeit suboptimal in comparison to the modern political order sought by the international community, is certainly better than what came before. Even as they practice traditional clientelist politics, some local strongmen are delivering an important measure of provincial governance on that basis.[12]

The political accommodation choices made over the course of the Bonn process exposed two major political consolidation challenges in Afghanistan. On the one hand, the Karzai government has not been able to extricate its reliance - sometimes problematic, sometimes surprisingly beneficial - on the successful warlords, among the winners at the end of the conflict, who have since posed problems for the representativeness of democracy and the legitimacy and authority of the central government. On the other hand, the political process in Afghanistan has been unable - because of the unwillingness of successive Afghan governments and their foreign backers - to incorporate the Taliban, the losers of the conflict. Violent clashes increased in the run-up to the 2004 and 2005 elections, with Taliban militants stepping up attacks against soft government targets, particularly in Afghanistan’s majority Pashtun southern and eastern provinces; these intensified again around the 2009 and 2010 elections.

These attacks increasingly undermined the government’s legitimacy and, by the end of the decade, the steadily mounting clashes also compromised the government’s authority, resulting in large swaths of territory in those provinces being ceded to the control of the Taliban and its allies. In short, the question of how to handle the Taliban re-emerged with pressing urgency after 2006, when the movement stepped up its campaign of instability and attacks against the governing authorities, both central and provincial. The Bonn Agreement was clearly a winners’ deal - but it was not necessarily the case that the longer-term political arrangements that emerged from the transitional process had to exclude the Taliban. By 2007, the Karzai government was holding informal talks with Taliban insurgents about bringing peace to Afghanistan, yet neither side has met the other’s conditions to begin formal peace talks.

The challenges of political consolidation and government effectiveness that resulted, in part, from the narrowness of the Bonn peace deal threatened the stability of the Karzai government on dual fronts. While the deal itself probably needed to be narrow to be struck, the Bonn process and international involvement subsequently continued to constrain the outcomes of the political transition in specific ways, especially because the United Nations and the United States were concerned with political expediency and having a government counterpart they could rely on. One manner in which both the warlord and the Taliban problem could have been dealt with outside the political process would have been through a substantial, focused effort on structuring a political economy as well as a political and civil society arena in which the benefits of participation were clearly more rewarding than continued opposition. Afghanistan has the ingredients for a robust and vibrant civil society, made up of interlocking layers of tribe, religion, ethnic, and linguistic networks - what Saikal terms “micro-societies.”[13] The transitional governance process through which the international community instinctively pursued political stabilization failed in many ways to tap into the sources of legitimacy embedded in these micro-societies in a meaningful manner in order to leverage their salience and their power for central governance purposes.

Instead, it seems clear, as Hamish Nixon and Richard Ponzio argue, that the international community’s peacebuilding strategy “resulted in the privileging of elections and institutions - however fragile and ill-prepared - over a coherent and complete vision for statebuilding and democratization.”[14] Nixon and Ponzio observe that key international players, including the United States, and Karzai wanted power strengthened in the president’s hands in order to be able to co-opt or defuse regional strongmen - hence, in order to fulfill political stabilization goals, the parliament was deliberately kept weak and the broader democratization and statebuilding agendas were adversely affected. They provide another example with the story of the Provincial Councils, which are intended to provide local representation and bottom- up development coordination and planning. Although these have been hailed as an essential part of the Afghan statebuilding process, they have yet to be endowed with the resources or competency to perform their stated functions.77

Progress on the statebuilding front has proven even more disheartening, although this is perhaps unsurprising since political stabilization was prioritized regardless of its longer-term impact on state capacity or effectiveness.[15] Measures of government effectiveness in Afghanistan demonstrate that state capacity may have improved somewhat in the last few years of the Taliban regime and the first few years of international presence, the latter probably due to the large amounts of service delivery and even central governmental functions carried out by aid organizations, but government effectiveness declined quite quickly once international attention drifted away from the country and it remains extremely low to this day.[16] A key measurable dimension of state capacity is the government revenue to budget ratio, an indicator of the ability of a state to finance its governing priorities and activities. In Afghanistan, Astri Suhrke reports, the government’s 2002 tax revenue was less than 10 percent of the national budget and there was no change by 2004-05, when domestic revenues were expected to cover only 8 percent of the total national budget and the gap to be financed by donor funds; furthermore, this pattern was projected to continue for five years.[17] Based on this heavy dependence on external resources, Suhrke goes so far as to diagnose Afghanistan as a rentier state. Continued reliance on these external aid flows, no matter how efficiently handled, hampers the government’s ability to strengthen its own legitimacy and authority vis-a-vis the population. Moreover, the Afghan government did not have the capacity necessary to absorb large inflows of aid - much of the money went to financing international consultants, who were not focused on transferring skills to their few Afghan counterparts and hence did not contribute to long-term capacity-building in the Afghan government.

Recognizing the immense reconstruction challenges still ahead of the country at the close of the Bonn process, the Afghan government and international donor community signed the Afghan Compact in December 2006. This strategy framed international assistance, tying it to government planning over five years; and follow-up meetings have since been held. In an equally promising development, alternative visions have begun to emerge in the country as the government attempts to continue the logic of the Bonn process. An opposition group formed in April 2007, the National Front, called for changes to the constitution to elevate the post of prime minister to share governance responsibilities with the president and demands direct elections of provincial governors, who are currently appointed by the president. This new opposition front, which included some members of Karzai’s cabinet, formed to challenge the president amid growing frustration with his rule and the government’s progress.

A decade after the conclusion of the Bonn Process, however, the deep elite power struggles at the heart of Afghanistan’s political instability persist, continuing to manifest themselves in a center- periphery contest over political order and stability. Early successes in constitution-making and elections through the transformative peacebuilding approach gave way to a deteriorating security environment and setbacks in the international community’s pursuit of modern political order in the country. Many hoped that the 2014 presidential elections would mark a turning point for post-conflict Afghanistan, as it began the transition away from Karzai’s weak and fractious regime, which was also regarded as increasingly petulant in the eyes of the international community. The new president, Ashraf Ghani, is viewed widely as a modernizing technocrat. Yet the 2014 presidential election was, like the one preceding it, marred by widespread allegations of voter fraud and intimidation. Abdullah Abdullah, the Northern Alliance leader and then foreign minister under Karzai, was a clear leader in the first round of voting and insisted that he was the victim of large-scale electoral fraud in the second round - an assertion later confirmed by European Union election monitors. The standoff threatened to boil over into violence until the two politicians eventually came to a co-governance compromise, with the Pashtun Ghani taking the presidency and the Tajik Abdullah assuming the newly created position of the government’s Chief Executive Officer.

Since taking office, however, Ghani has acted to centralize power in the office of the presidency, marginalizing both Abdullah and his own vice president, the Uzbek warlord Rashid Dostum. Albeit in the guise of fighting endemic administrative corruption, Ghani has undermined state capacity in several ways. He has, for example, brought billions of dollars of government procurement under the direct purview of his office, bypassing the line ministries that are supposed to handle this state business; his aides, too, are taking policy formulation and implementation into their own hands, sidelining appointed officials. Even those who support Ghani’s consolidating reforms are reported to be concerned about the effects of his changes on the prospects for sound governance.[18]

Afghanistan’s foremost challenge to the consolidation of effective and legitimate governance comes from the continued salience of the traditional neopatrimonial equilibrium - a political order organized around subnational strongmen at the head of complex patronage networks endowed with alternative sources of authority, legitimacy, and wealth that empower them vis-a-vis the central government. Having failed in the first instance to incorporate their resources into the central government, the Karzai regime then acted to neutralize the salience of these patrimonial networks by competing with them at their own game: it attempted to build its own clientelist base in the provinces by distributing government positions to allies. Timor Sharan describes how, in return, this strategy delivered the quid pro quo of electoral support for the Karzai regime, which warned tribal leaders that if they failed to support the Kabul administration they would be excluded from local government and its attendant patronage spoils in the form of jobs, aid, and other privileges.[19]

The international community’s strategy of prioritizing the stabilization of the country through a combination of democratization and political deal-making appears to have acted against the peacebuilding imperative by reinforcing traditional fragmentary loci of power, many of which have now come to operate in zero-sum opposition to the central state rather than in cooperation with it.[20] Antonio Giustozzi argues that, compared with previous periods of political development in Afghanistan, political parties in the country are now intent on securing for themselves a system of electoral support in exchange for patronage distribution. Examples of such political mobilization include parties associated with the Uzbek leader Rashid Dostum and the Hazara leader Haji Mohammed Mohaqeq: in both cases, organizational development took place around the logic of securing and distributing patronage instead of along the lines of ideological or programmatic goals.[21] This system of patronage is fed, in turn, by internationally provided resources, such that the post-conflict intervention in Afghanistan can itself be said to have cemented in place a rentier-driven neopatrimonial political economy in the country.[22] William Maley goes so far as to argue that flaws with the peacebuilding enterprise, including decisions to put in place a presidential and centralized political system, have driven Afghanistan from “institutionalization in the direction of neopatrimonialism.”[23]

Those dynamics - which have resulted both from the narrowness of the Bonn peace deal and from the transitional governance strategy itself - have contributed to a lack of consolidation of modern political order. The transitional governance process privileged and legitimized Karzai at the center and subnational elites in the provinces, many of whom are now enmeshed in a predatory political economy equilibrium where state structures are fragmented and captured. The drug economy and other avenues of patronage and corruption have both created pockets of stability in some parts of the country and fuelled sociopolitical breakdown and violent conflict in others.[24] As Barnett Rubin predicted, the criminalized peace economy has expanded rapidly in the country, leaving power-holders as unaccountable as they were under previous governing regimes.[25] Jonathan Goodhand notes, for example, that the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission reported that an estimated 80 per cent of parliamentary candidates in the provinces had some form of contact with drug traffickers and armed groups.[26] Poppy cultivation reached an all-time high in 2014, “stoking corruption, sustaining criminal networks, and providing significant financial support to the Taliban and other insurgent groups.”[27] Pervasive corruption, drug-related and otherwise, has undermined both state capacity and the government’s legitimacy; political groups out of power, including the Taliban, use the widespread patronage and corruption to perpetuate a sense of injustice and legitimize continued fighting against the government.[28] The transitional governance process through which the international community instinctively pursued political stabilization was co-opted by domestic elites into this conflictual neopatrimonial environment. The Afghan state remains splintered, both politically and administratively - in turn making the quest for sustainable peace in the country elusive.

  • [1] “Multi-multi-party Democracy.” The Economist, October 22, 2005. See also Reynolds 2006.
  • [2] Reynolds 2006.
  • [3] Goodson 2005; and Reynolds 2006. 2 Cramer and Goodhand 2002.
  • [4] 64 Saikal 2005.
  • [5] Goodson 2005: 31.
  • [6] Carlotta Gall. 2005. “Afghan Parties Form Opposition Front to Oppose Karzai in Elections.” New York Times, March 31.
  • [7] Ibid.: 158-159. 2 Reynolds 2006: 112.
  • [8] 70 “Let’s Make a Deal: A Democracy Arrives, Afghan Style.” New York Times,
  • [9] December 4, 2005.
  • [10] Chayes 2006. 5 Goodhand 2008; and Mac Ginty 2010.
  • [11] 73 Mukhopadhyay 2014.
  • [12] See also Migdal 1988 on the everyday realities of such strongman politics in the developing world.
  • [13] Saikal 2005. 2 Nixon and Ponzio 2007: 29.
  • [14] 77 Ibid.: 32-33.
  • [15] Freeman 2007; Rubin 2006; and Rubin and Hamidzada 2007.
  • [16] Such measures include, for example, the World Bank’s Country Policy andInstitutional Assessment (CPIA) public sector management and institutionscluster score for government effectiveness, as well as the “governmenteffectiveness” measure in the Worldwide Governance Indicators dataset.Kaufmann, Kraay, and Mastruzzi 2010.
  • [17] Suhrke 2009. This echoes Barnett Rubin’s diagnosis of the Daoud regime of the1970s as a rentier regime. Rubin 2002.
  • [18] Azam Ahmed. 2015. “Afghan Leader Said to be Centralizing Power as Unity Government Plan Stalls.” New York Times, March 15.
  • [19] Sharan 2011.
  • [20] Importantly, by contrast, some warlords have become able and willing governors on behalf of the state. Mukhopadhyay 2014.
  • [21] Giustozzi 2013: 328-330.
  • [22] Suhrke 2013; and Wilde and Mielke 20 1 3 . 3 Maley 2013: 255.
  • [23] 87 Rangelov and Theros 2012 argue that conflict persistence in Afghanistan can
  • [24] be explained by the emergence of a hybrid governance regime where theexercise of power - by various international and domestic political actors at alllevels of the state - is defined by its abuse.
  • [25] Rubin 2000: 1799-1780. 6 Goodhand 2008, fn. 34.
  • [26] 90 Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, 2014, “Poppy
  • [27] Cultivation in Afghanistan,” Special Report SIGAR-15-10-SP, October 2014.
  • [28] The Taliban has had an inconsistent approach to the poppy economy. Itsleader, Mullah Omar, banned its cultivation in 2000 on religious grounds yetthe Taliban has benefitted greatly, both before and after that decree, fromfarming taxes and illicit financial flows related to opium smuggling.
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