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Afghanistan: Elections and the 
Crisis of Governance
Afghanistan: Elections and the 
Crisis of Governance
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
There’s No Shortcut to Peace in Afghanistan
There’s No Shortcut to Peace in Afghanistan
Briefing 96 / Asia

Afghanistan: Elections and the 
Crisis of Governance

President Hamid Karzai’s re-election on 2 November 2009, following widespread fraud in the 20 August presidential and provincial polls, has delivered a critical blow to his government’s legitimacy.


I. Overview

President Hamid Karzai’s re-election on 2 November 2009, following widespread fraud in the 20 August presidential and provincial polls, has delivered a critical blow to his government’s legitimacy. The deeply flawed polls have eroded public confidence in the electoral process and in the international community’s commitment to the country’s nascent democratic institutions. Concentration of power in the executive to the exclusion of the legislature and judiciary has also resulted in a fundamental breakdown in governance while strengthening the hand of the insurgency. To restore stability, vigorous constitutional reform under the aegis of a loya jirga must be undertaken; an impartial commission of inquiry into the flawed elections should be formed; the UN Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) should be restructured to restore credibility; and prompt steps must be taken to strengthen institutions.

The presidential and provincial polls, the second set of elections since the ouster of the Taliban eight years ago, were held at a time of escalating insurgency and severe economic stagnation. Insecurity hampered candidates’ mobility and drove down voter turnout. An under-resourced security sector, combined with Taliban military gains, severely limited the ability of Afghan and international forces to protect candidates and voters. Violence during the campaign and on election day and vote rigging brought into clear focus the challenges that lie ahead in planning for the 2010 parliamentary and district council elections. 

Allegations of systemic fraud emerged even before Karzai and his chief challenger, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, each declared victory. Reports of intimidation, ballot stuffing, ghost polling stations and interference by staff of the Independent Election Commission (IEC) and candidate agents surfaced countrywide, but especially where insecurity led to an absence of female electoral staff, candidate agents and election observers. 

Although the elections were held for the first time ostensibly under sole Afghan stewardship, UNAMA through the United Nations Development Programme’s Enhancing Legal and Electoral Capacity for Tomorrow (ELECT) program was heavily involved in planning, preparations and logistics. The international community was thus perceived by Afghans as an active participant in the flawed process. When the U.S., European Union and UNAMA representatives quickly declared the elections a qualified success, these early endorsements may have cost them what little currency they had left with the Afghan public. The head of UNAMA’s failure to take decisive corrective action when evidence of fraud surfaced has badly damaged the UN’s standing in the country. Most Afghans believe that the political expedience of the rubber stamp was preferred to an honest assessment of systemic flaws in a process the international community had helped put in place and then failed to remedy.

Preliminary results released on 16 September 2009 indicated Karzai as the winner over Abdullah by 54.6 to 27.7 percent. A protracted investigation into claims of electoral fraud eventually led the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) on 18 October 2009 to disqualify nearly a quarter of the overall votes cast, necessitating a run-off between the two top candidates. Following intense pressure primarily from the U.S., Karzai agreed to face Abdullah in a second round of polls. However, Abdullah ultimately withdrew from the contest, citing concerns about electoral fraud, given the government’s failure to enact any meaningful reform of the electoral institutions.

Karzai’s retention of power under these circumstances has bolstered the impression that the international community is disinterested in or incapable of checking the corruption that has metastasised under his watch. To ensure against a further decline in public confidence, the international community must press harder for anti-corruption measures and for the appointment of respected individuals to the cabinet and provincial governorships. 

The electoral fraud was a direct consequence of failure to build the capacity of government institutions. Since the 2004 presidential vote, the international community – UNAMA in particular – repeatedly turned a blind eye to the looming crisis of credibility rooted in an unsound process. The August vote laid bare disagreements between different international actors and within the new American administration, whose lack of clear policy in Kabul undermined their ability to press for necessary changes ahead of the elections. The polls severely damaged UNAMA’s ability to function effectively, weakening its internal morale and sharply eroding Afghan confidence in Kai Eide, the Special Representative of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (SRSG). The UN’s mission to bring stability to the country has been severely jeopardised. His effectiveness as head of mission will always remain in doubt. If UNAMA’s credibility is to be restored, Eide must step down.

The international community has too often acted as if the election cycle was merely a box to check off. It needs to recognise that impending decisions about military strategies, troop levels and state-building concepts may matter little if it does not cauterise the damage. The measures that should be urgently put in place and vigorously supported specifically by the U.S. and the UN include:

  • restrictions on the size of the cabinet, and thorough vetting of cabinet and provincial governor appointees, barring nominees with demonstrated links to armed groups or criminal activities from joining the government; 
  • the formation of an impartial commission of inquiry composed of respected Afghan and international experts to conduct a thorough public review of the 20 August 2009 elections; the National Assembly’s use of its full sanctioning powers against those suspected of abusing their offices to influence the polls; and vigorous criminal prosecution by the attorney general and courts of those involved in flagrant violations of the law, whether candidates, IEC staff or government officials;
  • consultations among relevant Afghan and international actors to achieve consensus on immediate steps to strengthen the machinery for the 2010 elections, including the timely delineation of district boundaries for district council elections; enhanced penalties for misuse of state resources during the campaign; clarification of the shape and scope of the IEC and ECC to build sustainable mechanisms to enforce electoral standards and arbitrate disputes; and reconstitution of the IEC Secretariat and IEC Board with the involvement of parliament and other stakeholders in the appointment process; 
  • convocation of a loya jirga with the express purpose of undertaking constitutional reform, including consultations on the role of the Supreme Court; separation of powers by enhancing the independence of the judiciary and legislature; and the strengthening of provincial and district level governance through a meaningful devolution of authority and resources; and
  • resignation of UNAMA chief and SRSG Eide, since he has lost the confidence of many on his staff and the necessary trust of many parts of the Afghan polity, accompanied by a thorough re-evaluation of UN ELECT’s advisory role with the view to ensuring more robust support for Afghanistan’s electoral institutions and processes.

Kabul/Brussels, 25 November 2009

Op-Ed / Asia

There’s No Shortcut to Peace in Afghanistan

Originally published in Foreign Policy

Washington’s latest idea of a transitional government would be worse than the dysfunctional status quo.

If there is one thing the United States should have learned after two decades in Afghanistan, it’s that there are no quick fixes. That has proved true for the war, and it’s true for any possibility of a negotiated peace. But faced with the decision whether to comply with a May 1 deadline for pulling out all troops under a deal the U.S. government signed with the Taliban in February 2020, Washington is now searching for a shortcut to an Afghan political settlement. There isn’t one.

U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad has delivered to the Afghan government and Taliban a draft Afghanistan Peace Agreement—the central idea of which is replacing the elected Afghan government with a so-called transitional one that would include the Taliban and then negotiate among its members the future permanent system of government. Crucial blank spaces in the draft include the exact share of power for each of the warring sides and which side would control security institutions.

At the same time, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken wrote to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, in a letter that soon leaked, saying it was “urgent” to “accelerate peace talks” and move “quickly toward a settlement.” The letter states that the United States has asked Turkey to host a high-level meeting between the Afghan sides “in the coming weeks to finalize a peace agreement.” The letter also references a U.S.-proposed 90-day reduction in violence (a concept short of a cease-fire) while diplomacy continues—which suggests that Washington knows an agreement within weeks is unlikely.

Chances that Taliban leaders or Ghani would agree to anything like the U.S. draft peace agreement are vanishingly small. But if they do, the result will be worse than this gambit failing.

Chances that Taliban leaders or Ghani would agree to anything like the U.S. draft peace agreement are vanishingly small. But if they do, the result will be worse than this gambit failing.

For the Taliban, the draft has too many hallmarks of the existing government setup: It includes a commitment to holding elections and keeping in place the constitution devised under U.S. auspices in 2004 until a new one is written. The available evidence of Taliban thinking points to their rejecting any arrangement that would make them appear co-opted into a system they have long opposed in exchange for a partial share of power.

For Ghani, the proposal is premised on him relinquishing power. That brutal fact, plus the rough-edged tone of Blinken’s letter, has whipped up a political tempest in Kabul. Afghan Vice President Amrullah Saleh reacted most bluntly, saying Afghanistan would “never accept a bossy and imposed peace.” Ghani knows that the main Afghan enthusiasts of the transitional government idea are his political opposition and the country’s former mujahideen, who sense opportunity to gain power as it is parceled out.

In the unlikely event the new U.S. peace plan materializes, the power-sharing arrangement it envisions would be prone to collapse. A body comprising multiple factions plus the Taliban—at a stage of the peace process before they’ve even begun to hash out core issues that divide them—would be less functional and less stable than the fragile government in place now. The hard work of negotiating the structure of a future Afghan state will not be eased by prematurely erasing the current one. And if a fractious transitional government fails, the cease-fire the U.S. plan promises would evaporate with it.

The U.S. proposal reflects a boiling over of Washington’s frustrations with Ghani. The Afghan leader’s critics have accused him of obstructing a peace process that has sapped his government of its already tenuous authority. The past several Afghan elections have been bitterly contested, the country’s politics are deeply corrupt, and service provision is increasingly limited to population centers, with the Taliban insurgency operating freely throughout much of the countryside.

The U.S. proposal reflects a boiling over of Washington’s frustrations with Ghani.

But however much Ghani has contributed to slowing the process, dismantling the elected government is unlikely to hasten peace. The Taliban have not moved any faster. It took over a year of bilateral negotiations and numerous U.S. concessions for the Taliban to sign a four-page agreement spelling out a tight timeline for U.S. and NATO withdrawal and more ambiguous Taliban promises to prevent Afghanistan being used as a launching pad for terrorists. And the Taliban remain coy about details of the political vision they seek to realize. Official Taliban statements that their movement will accept some degree of power sharing are contradicted by internal messaging emphasizing victory and ascendance.

After delays for which the United States was as much to blame as any other party, Afghan talks finally commenced last September in Doha, Qatar. They’ve progressed haltingly, at least in part because the parties are waiting for a new U.S. government to signal whether it will stay committed to a process the previous one catalyzed.

The slow pace now clashes with the deadline for withdrawing foreign troops. That’s a problem the U.S.-Taliban deal caused by decoupling the withdrawal timetable from any requirement of progress in negotiations. But it’s also a problem that can’t be solved by demands to speed up the hard slog of reaching a political settlement.

It will be difficult to get the peace process in Doha to produce results, but it’s too soon to jettison a process that has taken years to set up and has only just begun. Instead of promoting a new plan that has almost no chance of being accepted and that would further weaken the Afghan state, Washington should put its energy into testing whether the Doha process can be made to work.

It will be difficult to get the peace process in Doha to produce results, but it’s too soon to jettison a process that has taken years to set up and has only just begun.

This should include rallying the regional powers, especially Pakistan, Iran, China, Russia, and India—who all have links to actors in the Afghan conflict—around generating momentum for the existing process. A high-level meeting of this group, which Washington has asked the United Nations to convene, is a good idea, but these stakeholders need a better peace plan to coalesce around than the new U.S. proposal.

If the United States wants to give the talks a real chance, then it will need to keep troops in Afghanistan beyond May 1 to maintain leverage for forging a settlement and to forestall a downward security spiral that would spike the process.

Ongoing talks would provide the best argument Washington could make to regional powers, especially Pakistan, for why they should help pressure the Taliban to let the deadline slip.

But if talks break down—as they probably will, given how divided the parties are and how rarely peace processes succeed—then it will be better to have even a dysfunctional Afghan government still standing than to have replaced it with a stopgap transitional one whose existence would not survive the end of negotiations. And if the Biden administration plans to pull out U.S. forces soon, then it’s better not to risk leaving such wreckage behind.


Program Director, Asia
Senior Analyst, Afghanistan