The Future of Afghanistan Depends on Local Politics—Not Kabul

Afghan election workers carry ballot boxes to polling stations in Mazar-i-Sharif

Mustafa Najafizada/AP

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Afghan election workers carry ballot boxes to polling stations in Mazar-i-Sharif

Want to know what’s in store for Afghanistan? Saturday’s presidential election only offers a partial answer. By Faiysal AliKhan

Want to know what’s in store for Afghanistan? Saturday’s presidential election only offers a partial answer. A set of cascading decisions announced after the new president takes office will be just as influential on Afghanistan’s future.

To understand why, it helps to employ a truism: “All politics are local.” After the post-election dust has settled and the new leadership is in place, they will still face the challenge of countering the narrative and influence of anti-democratic forces throughout the country and, more importantly, creating an inclusive and accessible governance structure. One way to do this: move out of the Kabul bubble. National leaders must spend more time in the provinces, allowing for policy making that is better informed and more rooted in the needs of the constituents.

There have already been success stories resulting from greater access and accountability over the last few years in the form of Members of Parliament (MPs) and Provincial Council Members. This can be seen during the specially allocated MP Days at the various ministries in Kabul. In fact, MPs are playing a larger role in this election because of their closer involvement with people and the access they provide to the center.

Another way to counter those narratives and ensure inclusive democracy is through the direct election of district governors.

The direct election of governors is a tangible way to increase access and ensure that leaders who are perceived to be legitimate represent the communities. In the first phase, implementing direct elections for district governors (kind of like mayors in the US), while allowing the president to retain the appointment of provincial governors (more like a state governor in the US), can be a good starting point. This approach will enable more inclusion and allow for redressing of grievances at a district level, as well as prioritize government service delivery according to local requirements.

The president’s appointment of governors will not only influence the perceived legitimacy of the government, but can also neutralize political and tribal dynamics, as well as anti-state elements. During the Hamid Karzai administration, for example, the appointment of Sayed Fazlullah Wahidi first as governor of the troubled Kunar Province and then as Governor of Herat in 2013 proved to be highly successful. As a technocrat and the first member of his family to hold such a prestigious office, he came to the position as a neutral party. In Herat where, among other issues, kidnappings (particularly of children) and illegal trade of sub-standard diesel were rampant, he took strict action against crime and enforced measures for police accountability, including arresting police for bribery. Within seven months, people felt safe walking through the city’s many parks even at dusk.

(Related: The U.S. Military’s Most Crucial Mission Yet in Afghanistan)

On the other hand, the appointment of Karzai’s then close friend Hamidullah Tokhi as the first governor of Zabul in 2011 contradicted the president’s own call for reconciliation between the government and the Taliban, and did little to strengthen the legitimacy of the government. In 1994, the Taliban had paraded Tokhi, a former Hizb-i Islami commander (Afghanistan’s Islamist political party) through the streets of Qalat, as punishment for his well-known corruption and looting of public property. This was a moral victory for the Taliban and was welcomed by the people of Qalat. But when he returned as governor, Tokhi of course took his revenge.

Choosing Tokhi both quashed the possibility of reconciliation and impacted the public’s sympathy and support for the government. Although the president had announced amnesty for Taliban members who promised to lay down their arms,  and Taliban leaders such as Amir Khan Haqqani and Mullah Nazir had signaled a willingness to reconcile, Tokhi’s behavior and the message sent by his appointment compelled them to take up arms again. It weakened the writ of the government. This micro-conflict has had implications on a national scale.

So what can we expect from the two front-running candidates after the elections?

Ashraf Ghani has a background in governance and has strengthened his roots in the community through the NSP and Kabul process and we can assume his inclination will be toward a more neutral, bipartisan approach. However, the challenge for him, if he were to win, will be appeasing his new political allies, who are spread amongst many parties. These include such heavy hitters as Pacha Khan Zadran (a direct rival of Afghanistan’s Islamist group, the Haqqani Network, and an ally who signals Ghani’s tribal support in the south, Sayed Mansur Naderi (a big player in the Karzai government)  and Hazrat Sahib Mojaddedi ( a spiritual leader respected even by the Taliban). The open question is: How will he balance political considerations in government appointments?

For Abdullah Abdullah, although his appeal has gone beyond ethnic lines and a generational divide, his perceived expertise and self-admitted forte has been towards foreign policy and national issues. Influencing local governments requires a different skill set. The public may raise questions about his decisions, particularly about his reliance on or delegation of those decisions to his allies and supporters.

Either way, all candidates will have the chance to demonstrate their commitment to the democratic process by graciously accepting the outcome and pledging their support to the winner. The new administration, in turn, will have a golden opportunity to hypostatize the unity of democracy by inviting the runner-ups to be part of a consensus national government.

These elections are already a win for Afghanistan. Despite the uptick in violence as election day draws nearer, Afghan people are crowding at rallies across the country and enduring long lines outside voter registration centers. This signals their enthusiasm, and determination to defy anti-democratic groups. Whoever becomes president, this decision alone—to vote no matter the cost—is a positive sign for the country’s future. The people have already begun to show the world the face of a new Afghanistan.

This post originally appeared at The Weekly Wonk, New America’s digital magazine.

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