Did Kerry just ditch America's vision for Afghanistan?

A positive step for Afghanistan is brokered by John Kerry. The key feature? Giving up on longstanding US political strategy for Afghanistan.

Jim Bourg/AP
US Secretary of State John Kerry (l.) and Afghanistan's presidential candidates Ashraf Ghani (c.), and Abdulah Abdullah hold their arms in the air together after announcing a deal for the auditing of all Afghan election votes at the United Nations Compound in Kabul, Saturday, July 12, 2014.

The United States-backed and guided Afghan constitution that was put in place a decade ago created a powerful, almost king-like authority for Hamid Karzai, the man hand-picked by the George W. Bush administration to run the country.

Mr. Karzai wielded those powers to the hilt, making sure the power and patronage unlocked by senior government posts flowed to and through those loyal to him, sidelining rivals and potential rivals. Afghan's nascent political institutions like parliament could be brushed aside and the only real check on Karzai's authority has been his government's total reliance on aid from the US and other NATO partners.

All this, not surprisingly, increased ethnic and regional tensions and undermined political and community trust. With Karzai term-limited out this year, the election battle to succeed him risked veering into a no-holds-barred brawl. After all, the fraud and vote-buying that secured Karzai's second 5-year term in the 2009 election – and the unchecked nature of executive authority – sent the message that a nice guy could do a lot worse than finish last.

So, since preliminary results of the June 14 presidential runoff found that former finance minister Ashraf Ghani, widely believed to have Karzai's backing, had defeated former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, the later has insisted that the election was stolen. Mr. Abdullah, who won the first round of voting in April, has demanded a full recount and investigation. [Editor's note: An earlier version of this paragraph misstated Dr. Ghani's post.]

The impasse had raised concerns of open warfare between the two camps, but was broken over the weekend in a rare diplomatic success for US Secretary of State John Kerry. It was also the rare situation in which Mr. Kerry wielded enormous amounts of leverage: Only opium production rivals foreign aid flows in importance for the Afghan economy.

Abdullah and Mr. Ghani, at Kerry's urging, agreed to a full recount (which is expected to delay the inauguration of Afghanistan's next president to early September, Karzai's office says) and both promised to abide by whatever it determines.

But that's not really the important bit. It appears that Kerry extracted from both men a promise to work towards creating a new arrangement that would end the supreme powers of the Afghan presidency.

Here's the key bit from the UN statement on the agreement: "The agreement also includes the formation of a government of national unity upon the declaration of the final results of the Presidential election."

Here comes parliament

The exact details of this have yet to be worked out, but what it means is at least a promise of a transformation away from a winner-take-all power game. Unnamed US and Afghan officials told the New York Times yesterday that an "empowered" prime minister's post will be created and that "changing to a more parliamentary system... is now seen as crucial to holding the country together after years of mounting political crises and ethnic and factional hostilities." Abdullah's support base is among ethnic-Tajiks, while Ghani's is with the country's ethnic-Pashtuns.

Whether this will come to pass is tough to say. It would rely on a president with theoretical great power abiding by a gentleman's agreement when the temptation will be to entrench his own position rather than weaken it.

The most interesting bit about Afghan's disastrous and personalized centralization of power over the past decade is how it's taken near warfare between enemies of the Taliban for the US to see the writing on the wall.

Ahead of Afghanistan's 2010 election, a senior Western diplomat in Kabul told me: "The parliament doesn't really matter. You could say in some ways that creating such a strong presidency was the original sin of post-Taliban Afghanistan."

His view was a common one by that point, and many had been saying this for far longer.

William Maley from the Australian National University warned in in 2004 that the presidential system in the Afghan constitution was probably a mistake. As he wrote in 2009:

On paper, Afghanistan has a strong presidential system. This has not served the country at all well. Presidential systems, by creating one winner and many losers, readily contribute to division rather than cooperation in countries that are already fragmented. In addition, the Afghan presidency is seriously overloaded, with one person simultaneously called upon to provide symbolic leadership, drive policy development and implementation and reconcile conflicting ministries and agencies. 

Finally, a presidential system empowers unelected associates of the president at the expense of those who can claim some legitimacy, either as elected members of the Afghan parliament, or as traditional leaders of significant tribes. This system fosters an approach to politics that nurtures cronyism and networking, but does little to ensure effective policy formulation and implementation. At some point it will need to be seriously addressed if it is not to do fatal harm to Afghanistan's political future.

The good news is an election crisis has been headed off and a first small step to what could become a system more suited to Afghanistan and Afghan's has begun. The bad news? There's ten years of damage to undo, foreign troop levels are expected to decline to near zero within two years, and the Taliban are still out there.

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