After counting votes for more than five months, Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission (IEC) this week declared that President Ashraf Ghani had won a second five-year term. This has plunged the country into a political crisis that threatens to derail the impending peace agreement between the United States and the Taliban. Ghani’s main opponent, Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah has said the IEC’s results are a “coup” and has threatened to form an alternative government. Ghani’s own vice president, Abdul Rashid Dostum, urged citizens to march into the streets to protest. Former President Karzai had opposed holding the election and warned that they would be a disaster, Karzai said the peace process should be prioritized. Even the Taliban declared the announcement of Ghani as the winner illegitimate.
Almost two decades of increasingly fraudulent elections have damaged citizen trust in democracy. The faith of Afghans in their political system was illustrated with tragically low voter turnout levels. Less than 20 percent of the eligible population voted in the September 2019 election. Allegations of corruption swirled months before voting took place; most Afghans sat on the sideline, fearing insecurity as well as an expectation that the outcome was already fraudulently predetermined. Ghani was reelected with support from fewer than 10 percent of eligible voters: 923,592 votes out of a population of more than 30 million.
This crisis shows that without urgent reform to the centralized political system, Afghanistan will remain mired in factionalism and civil conflict. Without political reform peace will be impossible.
The current Afghan political systems is not just a roadblock for peace, it is also the cause of so much of the current conflict as government predation arising from a dysfunctional system drives the insurgency. The system is wildly out of step with Afghanistan’s decentralized political reality, as so many Afghans have learned to live without effective governance for decades.
Rather than reform its political institutions, the post-Taliban 2004 constitution resurrected dysfunctional political institutions that bear a heavy Soviet influence. The Afghan people welcomed democracy with open arms but grew disillusioned when they were served up the same kind of centralized authority that they had seen for decades before. Democratic elections were slapped on a decaying, centralized system.
The Folly of Afghanistan’s Centralized System of Government
Afghanistan has one of the most centralized political systems in the world. The president appoints all ministers, as well as all officials at the subnational level including all provincial and district governors and mayors. All budget decisions are made in Kabul. Such centralized decision making is wildly out of step with a society that has grown self-reliant, resilient, and has creatively learned to govern itself.
Given the ethnic, linguistic, and religious diversity in Afghanistan, the system hampers the development of an inclusive and legitimate government that is representative of local interests. This system is not new: it was resurrected from the past. Afghanistan’s history has shown how this system has been unable to foster stability and inclusiveness.
Since 2001, Afghanistan has held four presidential elections. Each election was more corrupt than the one before. The 2014 presidential elections were so corrupt, it was impossible to discern a winner. After an impasse between Ghani and his rival Abdullah, then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry flew to Kabul and brokered an agreement that created a National Unity Government (NUG) between the two rivals. This agreement appointed Abdullah to the newly created, extra-constitutional position of chief executive officer.
The 2014 presidential election illustrated the flaws in the constitutionally mandated centralized political system. The NUG created an extra-constitutional power-sharing mechanism that bought short-term political stability. The power-sharing agreement brokered by Kerry promised political reform, including a constitutional Loya Jirga — a constitutional convention — that would reform the presidential system. There were hopes that the country would adopt a parliamentary system or at least a semi-presidential system. It also promised electoral reform as well as the distribution of electronic identification cards for all voters.
None of these promises that were intended to prevent fraud in future elections and build unity were kept. Hence, the country found itself in an utterly familiar mess. The NUG failed to meet its promises and Ghani initiated another presidential election.
Afghans agreed to the NUG deal because it promised serious reform of the political system. That never happened. So, it should be no surprise that the current result has led to an almost total collapse of the social contract upon which the current state has been built.
Leaders from across political factions insisted that political reform come before negotiations with the Taliban. Many parties, especially Abdullah and his allies, hoped for greater decentralization of authority to ensure representation of minority groups in the face of a peace agreement with the Taliban. Their main contention has been that the current system is not responsive to Afghanistan’s political problems. They argue that citizens will only feel comfortable negotiating with the Taliban if there is greater representation of local voices in government.
With greater decentralization, a peace agreement in Kandahar will accommodate the representation of different groups than in Bamiyan, for example. Yet, Ghani doubled down on the old centralized model that concentrates authority in his hands. He insisted on holding elections without reforms to the system which he had previously agreed to in 2014. He argued Afghanistan needs to have a strong central government to negotiate with the Taliban. Abdullah had a flexible position and declared that a peace agreement that led to a power-sharing agreement could happen before presidential elections.
Elections only added complications to a deeply uncertain environment.
Implications of the Elections for Peace
The present situation was entirely predictable. The 2014 power-sharing agreement illustrated the deep dysfunction of the current constitutional order. The agreement promised vast reform. Yet, the current government failed to deliver on this agreement. Ghani pushed ahead with another presidential election under the existing system. The United States provided more than $20 million to support these elections. By doing so the U.S. also lost more credibility as it promised that it would hold Ghani to the NUG agreement to reform the system.
The current crisis also illustrates that peace can only be achieved with either a new constitution or a series of constitutional amendments that redistribute and decentralize power. This will facilitate more inclusion and de jure recognition of the country’s pluralism. Without reform, political factions — especially those representing minority interests — will be suspicious of any peace agreement.
Second, it will be difficult for Ghani to claim any legitimacy in future peace negotiations with such low voter turnout. With such low level of representation, the exclusion of major domestic actors from power, and the growing domination of the Taliban over Afghan territory, the new government will face serious challenges. Without a willingness to share power, the new government would only undermine the prospects of peace and stability in Afghanistan. As such, this political system will continue to foment conflict in Afghanistan.
The Afghan government and the international community — especially the United States — should consider two important steps that can foster peace in Afghanistan. First, it is time to take Afghanistan’s local conditions seriously. Afghanistan has developed very strong local political institutions that are highly disconnected from the center. During decades of conflict, Afghan citizens have learned to devise creative institutions in their villages and cities because the state has failed them. Rather than recognize this resilience, the central government ignores it and seeks to impose a heavy hand that neglects local diversity. The winner-take-all system undermines stability by ignoring governance as it is practiced. Afghanistan needs power-sharing mechanisms to ensure different groups are represented in the political system. Such power-sharing is possible through decentralization and recognition of Afghanistan’s immense self-governance capabilities.
Second, a peace agreement with the Taliban will not be possible without modifying the constitution. This should be a precondition to any future agreement. Given Afghanistan’s local diversity and the dysfunction of the current political system, both the Afghan government and the U.S. must prioritize constitutional reform as foundational to any peace agreement. Constitutional reform that accounts for local preferences will be able to accommodate the Taliban in areas where they have legitimacy but spurn them where they do not. Without such reform, Afghans will remain resistant to peace because they have seen how the current centralized system leads to abuses and control.
Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili is Associate Professor of International Affairs and Director of the Center for Governance and Markets at the University of Pittsburgh. She is the author of Informal Order and the State in Afghanistan (Cambridge University Press, 2016) and Land, the State, and War: Property Rights and Political Order in Afghanistan (Cambridge University Press, forthcoming; with Ilia Murtazashvili).
Mohammad Qadam Shah is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Center for Governance and Markets at the University of Pittsburgh. His research focuses on public policy, public administration, and issues of public finance in conflict-affected states. He earned his PhD in law from the University of Washington in 2019. He has also served as a faculty member at the Department of Law and Political Science at Balkh University in Mazar-e Sharif.