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Sunday, March 21, 2010

Afghanistan: Politics, Elections, and Government Performance

Kenneth Katzman
Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs

The performance and legitimacy of the Afghan government figured prominently in two reviews of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan during 2009. In his December 1, 2009, speech on Afghanistan, which followed the second review, President Obama stated that the Afghan government would be judged on performance, and "The days of providing a blank check are over." The policy statement was based, in part, on an August 2009 assessment of the security situation furnished by the top commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, as well as on criticisms of the government of President Hamid Karzai by U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry and other U.S. officials. U.S. strategy effort is deemed to require a legitimate Afghan partner. 

The Afghan government's limited writ and widespread official corruption are identified by U.S. officials as factors helping sustain the insurgency in Afghanistan. At the same time, President Hamid Karzai's alliances with key ethnic and political faction leaders have reduced his ability to stock the government with politically neutral and technically competent officers. Despite the loss of confidence in Karzai, he went into the August 20, 2009, presidential election as the favorite. Amid widespread charges of fraud, many substantiated by a U.N.-backed Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC), nearly one-third of Karzai's votes were invalidated, leaving Karzai just short of the 50%+ total needed to avoid a second-round runoff. Asserting that more fraud was likely, Karzai's main challenger dropped out of the race on November 1, 2009, and Karzai was declared the winner. He has since had difficulty obtaining parliamentary confirmation of a full cabinet, and 10 ministerial posts remain unfilled. Most of the highly regarded economic ministers have been confirmed. 

Karzai's hopes to rebuild international support for his leadership at a major international conference on Afghanistan in Britain on January 28, 2010, were partly fulfilled. The conference endorsed—and agreed to begin to fund—his proposals to try to persuade insurgent fighters to give up their fight. At the conference, Karzai committed to several specific steps to try to weed out official corruption and to ensure that all future elections are free and fair. However, that pledge was undermined, to an extent, in February 2010 when Karzai issued an election law decree that would eliminate the three positions for international officials on the ECC. The decree will apply to the parliamentary elections now set for September 18, 2010, a date set to take into account international assertions that Afghan institutions would not be ready to hold credible parliamentary elections by the constitutionally mandated date of May 22, 2010. 

Because most insurgents are, like Karzai, ethnic Pashtuns, stabilizing Afghanistan requires winning Pashtun political support for the Afghan government. This support requires effective local governing structures. The trend toward promoting local governing bodies has been accelerated by the Obama Administration and received substantial attention at the London conference. From the U.S. perspective, implementing this focus is a so-called "civilian uplift" that has doubled, to about 975, the number of U.S. civilian personnel helping build Afghan governing and security institutions and the economy. That number is expected to rise by another 30% during 2010. 

For further information, see CRS Report RL30588, Afghanistan: Post-Taliban Governance, Security, and U.S. Policy, by Kenneth Katzman; and


  CRS Report R40747, United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan: Background and Policy Issues, by Rhoda Margesson.

Date of Report: March 08, 2010
Number of Pages: 39
Order Number: RS21922
Price: $19.95

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