US must focus on upcoming leadership change in Afghanistan

When Obama made his secret visit to Afghanistan yesterday, he emphasized America's security role. The US needs to focus on helping Afghanistan build its political and governing capabilities. The Afghan presidential election looms with no plan for a smooth transition of power.

Charles Dharapak/AP
President Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai shake hands after making statements before signing a strategic partnership agreement at the presidential palace in Kabul May 2. Op-ed contributor Javid Ahmad writes that any move by the US toward Afghan 'decentralization or support for one faction over another amounts to meddling in Afghanistan’s domestic affairs and must be avoided.'

The exit sign is blinking in Afghanistan. Yesterday, President Obama secretly traveled to Kabul and signed a pact outlining US support for Afghanistan after the troop pullout in 2014. He also spoke to Americans about the war in a prime-time address.

The US focus is, and has been, primarily on security support for Afghanistan. But what about Afghanistan’s political transition? The Afghan presidential election is also slated for 2014, but the buzz is that it may be moved up to 2013 to avoid overlap with the planned NATO troop drawdown.

Yet there is still no practical plan for a smooth transfer of political power. Policymakers should be asking what the Afghan and US governments could do to ensure a smooth transfer without leaving behind a looming political vacuum and potential civil strife.

While Afghanistan has traditionally lacked effective national leadership, the Afghan and US governments over the years have failed to develop a mature political class from which the Afghan people can democratically select its leaders.

This failure extends to the civil service, which is largely corrupt and inept and operates under a vast network of political patronage and nepotism. Ten years and counting since the US invaded Afghanistan to oust the Taliban and wipe out its support for al Qaeda, the Afghan civil service is still incapable of delivering basic services to the Afghan people.

Meanwhile, concern is growing in Kabul that Mr. Karzai may attempt to “pull a Putin” at the next election.

As with Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2008, Karzai is not eligible to run for a third term. However, it is now speculated that he will hand pick a successor who will serve as president while Karzai retains his strongman status and runs the show from behind the scenes – keeping the seat warm until Karzai’s return.

Depending on whom Karzai might pick as his successor, such a move would spark outrage among many in Afghanistan, specifically among members of the opposition group, the erstwhile Northern Alliance. 

Several names are in play, including Qayum Karzai, the president’s multimillionaire older brother, influential in Afghan politics and security.

However, President Karzai’s personal favorite may be Farooq Wardak, the current minister of education. Like Karzai, Mr. Wardak is a Pashtun. The two have a close relationship. If Karzai chooses to publicly announce his support for a potential Wardak candidacy, that could garner widespread public support among Pashtun voters who would likely rally to get him elected. Despite his lack of charisma, Wardak is regarded as one of Karzai’s most competent cabinet ministers.

True or not, there is a growing perception in Afghanistan that the US is trying to be a political kingmaker in domestic politics. Recent outreach to Afghan political figures by several members of Congress has emboldened this perception.

Members such as Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a Republican from California, seem aligned with Afghanistan's opposition figures who want to radically revamp the state and decentralize it. Mr. Rohrabacher's disdain for Karzai is well known, and US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton personally asked him not to join a congressional delegation in Kabul in April. He did not travel to Kabul, but other members did, and met with opposition figures.

The Obama administration itself does not support decentralization. Such an Afghanistan could involve, among other things, granting the provincial councils legislative power and having provincial governors elected rather than appointed by the president. The elected governors would have considerable power, including the ability to levy their own taxes and make all key provincial appointments.

This may work in America, but Afghanistan is not America.

Giving provincial governors the authority to hire and fire civil servants, and levy their own taxes with no input or control from Kabul risks creating and supporting local “strongmen” and parallel power structures that could be potentially destabilizing.

Such an arrangement also risks turning up the heat on already simmering ethnic tensions. It could create a Pashtun-dominated “Pashtunistan” separated from a confederation of provinces dominated by ethnic Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras.

Such a strategy of soft partition would open the door for ethnic cleansing. A cursory look at history, including that of India, Bosnia, Palestine, and Cyprus, suggests that the partition of mixed political entities has almost always been accompanied or preceded by ethnic cleansing and/or colossal ethnic violence. 

US support in Afghanistan over the past decade has been invaluable and American officials have the right to criticize the Afghan government, but any move toward decentralization or support for one faction over another amounts to meddling in Afghanistan’s domestic affairs and must be avoided.

What the Obama administration and Congress can and must do is to begin pivoting from an emphasis on security to one that builds Afghanistan’s political and governing capabilities.

Rather than cozying up to insatiable warlords, former jihadi leaders, and other insalubrious characters that the US has supported in the past, America must do all it can to assist the development of moderate leaders in each of the factions – without “taking sides.”

Through education and leadership training of young Afghans, as well as foreign exposure, especially in the United States, America must nurture the next generation of dynamic young leaders. Afghanistan and the US have a valuable opportunity to support technocrats, visionary leaders, and capable civil servants who will lead the country into a positive future.

The 2014 election is of crucial significance. Real and tangible steps must be taken toward a smooth and responsible transition of power. Time is running out.

Javid Ahmad, a native of Kabul, is program coordinator with the Asia Program of the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Washington, D.C. The views reflected here are his own.

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