The Pulse | Politics | South Asia

Ending the War Won’t Solve Afghanistan’s Governance Problem

Afghanistan has made progress, but without a well-functioning government at the helm all those gains risk being lost.

By Gul Maqsood Sabit for
Ending the War Won’t Solve Afghanistan’s Governance Problem
Credit: U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Sharida Jackson

The international community has provided unstinting aid to help Afghanistan stabilize, prosper, and develop; as a result, great achievements have been made toward that objective. However, insufficient effort was devoted to establishing a functional government that could sustain itself and function as a guardian and defender of the gains achieved over the past 18 years. Therefore, many fear the loss of previous gains as a possible peace deal between the United States and the Taliban nears. A functional and accountable government that can manage all its public affairs and effectively lead and utilize development efforts should be at the core of post-peace agreement aid and assistance to Afghanistan.

In a normal democratic environment, political leadership strives to build good government institutions as citizens monitor and hold them responsible for their actions. Elections and oversight from the media, judiciary, civil society, and other well-organized and functioning mechanisms are means citizens use to hold governments accountable and require officials to perform well and in the interest of people. Due to long periods of conflict in Afghanistan, these means of accountability have been either been weakened, do not exist, or operate under the influence of powerful individuals. Core structures of society are broken, and the population is exasperated and marginalized, stricken by poverty, illiteracy, and often indirectly suppressed. In such conditions, a key pillar of society that can ensure the accountability of the government and its officials has remained on paper only, allowing abuses of power and giving little incentive to build good governance apparatus and institutions throughout the country.

When the Taliban government was ousted in 2001, several anti-Taliban groups returned to Kabul and became part of the new government, led by President Hamid Karzai, alongside some highly educated technocrats who returned from other countries. Many Afghans were excited about a democratic government when the first presidential election, with a turnout of over 70 percent, was held in 2004. The momentum to build government institutions, systems, and processes was keenly underway. Some institutions, notably in the financial sector, were developed due to the IMF, USAID, and World Bank’s focus on structural reforms.

However, the process slowed down as government formation became more deal-based rather than election-based and power was continuously shared among the few powerful and influential groups and individuals. People gradually lost confidence in the democratic process, resulting in greater distance between people and the government. The formation of the National Unity Government (NUG) in 2014, disregarding the results of the elections, was a major blow. Although insecurity was to partially blame, voter turnout of around 20 percent in the 2019 presidential election indicated declining confidence in elections, further endangering the future of democracy in Afghanistan.

Election results continue to be disputed as a capable election administration with a transparent and trusted governance structure does not exist. The situation paves the way for the formation of a deal-based government and increased claims to power based on justifications other than elections. When in power, leaders and interest groups increase their share of power by filling key government positions with often incompetent individuals, many of whom have interests and objectives in conflict with government policies and programs. Since little public accountability exists, serving group interests becomes a priority over the public interest. Government departments operate at the mercy of such individuals and little effort is made to reform and build process-based institutions that provide public services to all. Departments are politicized from top to bottom and personal relationships are key to daily operations, including enforcement of laws, making it difficult for common Afghans to receive services. Many join groups, mostly ethnic-based, to ensure they can receive protection, government jobs, and other needs the government should provide for equally to all. In the meantime, such a politicized work environment forces out educated and experienced professionals committed to Afghanistan stability and prosperity.

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Meanwhile, incapable institutions, as counterparts to development agencies, are one of the causes of the corruption, misuse, and waste of aid monies. A few implementers of aid projects preferred incompetent counterparts as this gave them the freedom to act according to their wishes, not the development needs of Afghanistan. They far overstated their achievements in progress reports to their donors, signed off on by their counterparts.

This explains why, despite massive aid to the country, 85 percent Afghans live in deprivation and are disappointed with their lives, according to a 2019 Gallup survey. Thousands of Afghans fly to India for basic medical services selling off their land and other valuables to fund the trip. Insecurity and poverty are on the rise and the justice system is either corrupt or does not exist in many areas. Instead, people turn to the Taliban or other groups to solve disputes. Areas outside major cities are “no-man’s lands” attractive to anti-government groups. A deprived and suffering population with no rule of law is a perfect recruiting target for groups like Islamic State and others.

Development aid will be wasted without a functional government that can protect the development gains and ensure effective utilization of aid project benefits per the needs of its people. It is essential to invest in building government institutions, mechanisms, and systems in fragile states like Afghanistan at the district and provincial levels before pouring billions of dollars into development projects. Had a resilient, responsive, and people-supported government with a functional governance apparatus and institutions existed in Afghanistan, Afghans would not fear losing the gains of the past 18 years. Moreover, the Taliban would not be able to avoid negotiating with a strong and people-oriented government.

Steps must be taken to ensure public interest and confidence is reinstated in democratic processes, such as elections, and thereby in the government. Institutions that are responsible for holding elections are at the core of such trust-building. Therefore, officers elected to the election commission must be appointed through a transparent process, protecting the commission from political influences.

Additionally, Afghanistan has a significant number of professionals who not only have technical expertise but are knowledgeable about the Afghan cultural, political, and social landscape. These professionals, however, have been sidelined as they are not affiliated with specific groups or powerful individuals and Afghanistan has no transparent process of merit-based appointments. A full reform of the civil services to choose professionalism and merit over personal and political affiliations in appointments will pave the way for such professionals to play a role in building a resilient system of governance, rebuilding public confidence and trust in the government. All-inclusive policies with checks and balances, process-based operations with all officials held accountable, and a justice system that provides service to all and implements laws equally across the board should be at the heart of governance.

War alone has not put Afghanistan’s stability in jeopardy; the governance problem has further fueled the war and increased problems on the ground. A peace deal between the Taliban and the United States may end the war, but only a functional and a responsive government, rooted in society, will stabilize Afghanistan. It is the government that works as a foundation for development, effectively utilizing its benefits, and leading the country from fragility to stability. Without such a base, the impact of development is not unsustainable and often lost. Building functional government institutions across the country must become a priority for development organizations and donors, now and in a post-peace agreement Afghanistan.

Gul Maqsood Sabit teaches business at Ohlone College of Fremont, California, U.S. He is former Deputy Minister of Finance in the government of Afghanistan and former President and CEO of Pashtany Bank, a state-owned bank in Afghanistan.