Why Afghanistan might gain a CEO

As race for presidency nears, a new role is eyed for a former US ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad: Help Kabul work with the outside world.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    On the ground: Security contractors guarded Mr. Khalilzad, then US ambassador to Iraq, in Baghdad in 2007.
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Afghan voter Bakhtiar Najman has some 40 other options this August besides President Hamid Karzai, whose leadership he describes as "bad." The trouble is, the others strike him as worse.

"So I will vote for bad," says Mr. Najman, a law student at Kabul University.

Mr. Karzai's popularity has slipped among Afghans and in Washington. Yet he enters the presidential race in a strong position, having sidelined and co-opted his strongest opponents.

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Analysts and opposition figures blame the political paradox on the centralized nature of the government and the concentration of power in the presidency. And with elections fast approaching, proposed reforms are buzzing around Kabul, including the creation of a prime ministerial post. Perhaps most intriguing of all the possible solutions to decentralize power are the reports that former US ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad could step in as the country's "chief executive officer."

The CEO idea appears to hold appeal among frustrated Afghans, while the position's lack of definition and constitutional legitimacy worries experts.

"The office of president is … a 48-hour job given a 24-hour time frame," says William Maley, an Afghanistan expert at Aus­tralian National Uni­ver­sity. "Some­thing to relieve the burdens of the office is vital. On the other hand, simply going down the path of having a CEO as an agent of the president, there's no foundation for institutionalizing the office."

As president, Karzai controls the appointments of governors and heads of ministries. With his popularity eroding, Karzai pulls this lever of power to manage political rivals, most recently choosing notorious warlord Muhammad Fahim to be one of his two running mates.

The allegiances of these Afghan officials are to Karzai, as there's little anyone else can do about the appointments. Indeed, when parliament tried recently to exercise its oversight role in requesting a new foreign minister, Karzai refused.

The idea of a CEO provides the possibility of taking some powers away from the presidency.

The New York Times first reported last month that Mr. Khalilzad and Karzai were discussing the possibility of the Afghan-American becoming an unelected CEO for the country, citing unnamed senior US and Afghan officials. Other reports followed, as did denials by the Afghan palace, the US, and Khalilzad himself.

Yet Kabul power brokers remain unconvinced, saying the signals have been mixed.

The business paradigm of the CEO frames the Afghan government's problem less in terms of accountability and more as a bottleneck in bureaucracy.

Some analysts suspect the CEO, if instituted, would be tasked with coordinating the relationship between the Afghan government and the international community. Westerners are frustrated with working through ministers who owe their positions to patronage. Afghans are frustrated that their government lacks the capacity to oversee projects.

"A CEO might be someone who could be in control of monitoring all these projects that are implemented by the government or by donor countries, especially these contractors," says Haroun Mir, a Kabul-based analyst. But he joins a chorus of reservations about the idea: "I don't think it's a good thing for democracy. A nonelected person would have huge influence of power in the country."

Another danger: The person winds up having no power. Ashraf Ghani, a top presidential candidate, warns that the position has no legal basis – and no real sway with ministers.

Yet in more than a dozen interviews across Kabul and in Bamiyan and Parwan provinces, northwest of the capital, voters mostly viewed Khalilzad as a strong administrator. Many didn't mind having an American citizen in the No. 2 position.

"He played the role of a bridge between the West and Afghanistan and I'm sure he could do that well," says Mortaza Nabizada, a fuel seller in Kabul. "And he always united different commanders and different factions."

Mr. Ghani questions whether Khalilzad's tenure as ambassador proves administrative chops. "His power derived from being an American ambassador," he says. "If he comes as an Afghan player, that's on very different terms."

Another potential solution is to have a government run by a prime minister. That would give parliament greater oversight. A leading opposition candidate for president, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, is pushing for adding the post.

"It would make the government more accountable and transparent," Mr. Abdullah says, denying a Reuters report that Karzai offered him the CEO post in exchange for exiting the race.

Parliamentary systems "better contribute toward stabilization of disrupted societies" by allowing more voices to be heard, Mr. Maley says.

Afghanistan rejected the idea of a prime minister, however, when the Constitution was ratified in 2004: Ethnic minority leaders backed the idea while the dominant Pashtuns came to see it as an effort to constrain their power. The debate around adding a prime minister continues to be based on ethnicity, says Maley.

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