Fragments of the Afghan State

Today, Afghans head to the polls fearing attack from Taliban forces who've labeled the process a "program of the crusaders." Most likely, Taliban efforts to derail the voting will fail, and incumbent President Hamid Karzai will stay in office. A smooth election, if it happens, should provide a morale boost for an Obama administration that's lately been struggling with grim assessments of Afghanistan's political situation. But even given a best-case scenario, no election result should distract from the United States' desperate need to frame realistic objectives in Afghanistan.

The threat of election-day violence should not be downplayed, especially in light of Tuesday's suicide bombing in Kabul. Still, one consequence of the Bush administration's mishandling of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is that the U.S. military has gotten quite adept at handling emergency election security under challenging circumstances. Dire predictions were made about the security situation around Afghanistan's first presidential elections five years ago, and similar anxiety was experienced during Iraq's elections in early 2005, but the mechanics of voting operated relatively smoothly in both cases. It's difficult to forecast the outcome for Afghanistan with any certainty, and NATO officials are trying not to sound overconfident, but it seems reasonable to expect a good deal of success from the emergency security measures that American, Afghan, and NATO forces will implement.

But the trouble -- gleanable from past elections -- is that a single day's worth of security, even if achieved, is not the same as providing security to the population on a sustained basis.

Similarly, even if Karzai manages to secure re-election in a free and fair manner, the result will say more about the divided nature of the opposition than about the Afghan president's own level of popular support. Indeed, Afghans' ratings of Karzai's job performance have been steadily slipping for years, and U.S. officials regard his administration as ineffective. That said, his administration's inefficacy and his opponents' difficulty in beating him fundamentally stem from the same source: Afghan politics aren't really "about" anything other than ever-shifting alliances of ethnically fragmented militia leaders.

To illustrate the point, consider Karzai's recent pickup of a key endorsement from recently re-called General Rashid Dostum. American coverage of this has tended to emphasize Dostum's status as a "notorious" militia leader accused of human-rights abuses, but the most important fact about him is simply that he?s from neither of the country?s two biggest ethnic groups. Beyond that, it's worth dwelling on the sheer number of loyalties he's held. Pashtuns make up the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, and the Taliban draw its support from them. The second largest group is made up of the Tajiks, who dominated the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance. Karzai is a Pashtun, brought in by the United States to head the new Afghan administration specifically to prevent the post-Taliban regime from looking too Tajik. His main opponent in the current election, Dr Abdullah Abdullah, is Tajik and was the Northern Alliance's foreign minister. Karzai still retains the support of the Northern Alliance's former defense minister, Muhammed Qasim Fahim, another Tajik. Dostum, meanwhile, is the most prominent leader of Afghanistan's Uzbek community.

There aren't enough Uzbeks in Afghanistan for Dostum to ever hope to run the country, but they can serve as a kind of "swing" group in elections and civil wars.

That?s why he matters now, and it?s why he?s had a career as a big-time flip-flopper in his country?s various wars. After spending the entire 1980s fighting on the Soviet side of the war in Afghanistan, he had a well-timed change of heart in 1992 once the Russians had definitively left the country. Allied with mujahedeen commander Ahmed Shah Massoud, Dostum's forces helped seize Kabul and fight against the forces of rival militia leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Then in 1994, Dostum flipped and allied with Hekmatyar against Massoud and official Afghan president Burhanuddin Rabbani. Following the Taliban's capture of Kabul in 1996, he flipped back and entered a tactical alliance with Massoud and Rabbani. Later, he was betrayed by one of his subordinates and forced into exile, but in 2001 he came back, again in alliance with Massoud, as one of the key players in the Northern Alliance. Late in that year, his forces fought in loose alliance with the United States during which time he perpetrated the Dasht-i-Leili massacre which involved locking hundreds -- and possibly thousands -- of prisoners in metal shipping containers until they suffocated to death.

Owing to Dostum's unsavory reputation, Karzai worked fairly steadily to sideline the general until some time last year when he went into exile operating as a tacit supporter of Abdullah's opposition coalition. Until this week, that is, when he and Karzai seem to have (doubtless temporarily) reconciled in order to strengthen Karzai's coalition.

Few Afghan political leaders have quite the deplorable record of Dostum (conversely, by Afghan standards he has progressive views on women). But essentially all share his record of shifting alliances, double-crosses, patronage politics, and a failure to articulate anything resembling a coherent policy vision. Everyone has fallen out with everyone and allied with everyone at least once or twice. Karzai appears to be very good at this game, making it essentially impossible for anyone to beat him. But politics conducted on this basis simply can't produce anything other than a weak and ineffectual government -- it inherently leads to divided, corrupt, patronage-driven governance. Spencer Ackerman reports that regardless of the outcome, Karzai will likely face pressure from the United States to further expand his coalition in order to resolve any questions about legitimacy, which will only make the efficacy problem worse.

This is just the way things work in Afghanistan, and U.S. policy needs to keep that in mind. Recent talk from the Obama administration has indicated a desire to get much more ambitious about state-building in Afghanistan, but the country's poor governance capabilities have at least as much to do with incoherence found at the highest levels as they do with a lack of the sort of expertise that could be provided by foreign advisers. Americans should hope the election goes as smoothly as possible and do what we can to help. But we can't let success hide the sprawling and fractious nature of Afghan politics or ignore the lesson that outside military force isn't going to turn Afghanistan into an effectively governed centralized state.

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