An Unviable State: A Broken Afghan Edifice, Part 3

President of Afghanistan Ashraf Ghani
Image credit: U.S. Institute of Peace. The file is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

In this third article among a seven-part discussion on Afghanistan, Adnan Qaiser, with a distinguished career in the armed forces and international diplomacy, examines Afghanistan’s internal chaos and contradictions, which, despite repeated international efforts, do not allow the country to stand on its own feet. [Read Part 1, Part 2]

Mountstuart Elphinstone, the British East India Company’s administrator who concluded an agreement with the Afghan ruler, Shah Shuja Durrani for Britain’s control of Afghanistan’s foreign policy in 1808 had noted in his 1815’s book titled “An Account of the Kingdom of Caubul”: “To sum up the character of the Afghans in a few words: their vices are revenge, envy, avarice, rapacity, and obstinacy.”

A Rentier State with Flawed Constitutional Framework

A historically rentier-state, having long survived on foreign powers’ rent – from British to the former Soviet Union and to the United States – Afghanistan has always been a showcase of warlordism and lack of central government’s authority and control over its peripheral areas, ethnic distrust and discord, tribal hostility and feuds, a culture of retribution and vengeance and societal polarization and disharmony. 

In the absence of Kabul’s powers and its writ extending to the far-flung areas, the country has largely remained a fiefdom of warlords and ethnic tribal leaders, who govern through their private militias (discussed in Part-IV). Thus, in order to bring some orderliness and demonstrate some legitimacy, successive Afghan governments have made Afghanistan a rentier state – leasing-out national sovereignty to regional stakeholders and foreign powers. 

The culture of seeking foreign patronage and protection for their domestic legitimacy, which the Afghan elites and tribal leaders learned during the “great game” between Great Britain and the Russian empire, has seeped in Afghan roots over time. Thus, it was not surprising to see the political dispensation that was evolved after uprooting the Taliban regime through the Bonn Agreement of December 2001 not maturing-up even in its 19th year.

Thus, even with the façade of democratically elected governments, a parliament and a constitution to boot, Afghanistan has remained a sad spectacle of elite capture, predatory governance, spiralling violence, massive unemployment, soaring inflation, rooted corruption and entrenched nepotism. Organized crime, drugs and narcotics smuggling, illegal trade of goods, kidnappings for ransom, extortion, and sodomy remain other evils that not only haunt the Afghan society but erode its very foundations.

Making a mockery of governance, successive Afghan governments have only promoted favouritism while remaining dismissive to negotiate a power-sharing formula with the opponents and insurgents for peace and security in the country. Over and above the controversially-elected governments in fraudulent elections could do nothing except pay lip-service at the loss of innocent lives and damage to property at the hands of jittery attacks by NATO forces.

The traditional Loya Jirga (the grand congregation of tribal elders) has been largely rendered ineffective, similar to the High Peace Council (HPC) that was created amid a lot of fanfare by President Karzai in September 2010 – and dissolved by President Ghani in July 2019 without serving its purpose. While the Loya Jirga is seen in Afghanistan as an “obsolete and ineffectual mechanism,” the United States Institute of Peace saw the HPC “failed to reflect civil society.” The failure of both institutions lies in the apathy of Afghan elites, sitting at plum governmental jobs, having absolutely no interest in reconciliation or rapprochement with the Taliban. 

Since the promulgation of Afghanistan’s constitutional order of 2004, the country’s four presidential, three parliamentary, and several provincial council elections have turned out to be most controversial undertakings, leaving behind nothing by bickering, bitterness and more hostility. A dumbfounded international community saw its latest manifestation in the shape of two political rivals – representing diverse ethnicities – taking their respective presidential oaths at Arg and Sapedar Palaces on March 9, 2020.

The farcical two-man presidentship running the Afghan show further compounds worries about armed clashes between the rival groups. Over and above, with the US-Taliban peace-deal heading nowhere, the Taliban have already hinted it tattering-apart. Such a disquieting state-of-affairs has not only disillusioned the international community – footing the Afghan bill in billions of dollars in the past 19 years – but also delegitimized the whole political edifice in the eyes of Afghan people for failing to deliver. 

Riaz Muhammad Khan, a former foreign secretary of Pakistan having intimate knowledge of Afghans notes in his scholarship, “Afghanistan and Pakistan: Conflict, Extremism, and Resistance to Modernity“: “Afghan leaders all too often betray a disposition to exploit the competing interests of outside powers. In pursuing this game they lose sight of larger national interests. A pronounced trait of personal stubbornness also makes them disdain recourse to accommodation and reasonableness. The problem becomes acute because, in the absence of an institutional framework, politics depends on personalities.” 

The Fouled and Fraudulent Presidential Elections

Said to be the most fraudulent election in Afghanistan’s history, the ballot held on Oct. 9, 2004, granted an unbelievable victory to Hamid Karzai over his rival candidate, former Education Minister Muhammad Yunus Qanooni, by a margin of 39.1 percent.  Karzai won 55.4 percent vote, well ahead of Qanooni who could hardly secure 16.3 percent.

Thus, securing another win in the election held on Aug. 20, 2009 was not difficult for President Karzai, ensconced in Kabul’s Arg (presidential palace) in the past eight years, with 54.6 percent votes. Never mind, Kai Eide, the highest ranking United Nation’s official in Afghanistan acknowledged “widespread fraud” in the election results. 

Likewise, the presidential elections of 2014 also left a lot of toxicity and bitterness, when with a narrow margin none of the candidates could secure over 50 percent of the vote in the first round held on April 5, 2014. However, with Ashraf Ghani trailing behind Abdullah Abdullah with 31.56 and 45 percentage points respectively in the first run, some miracle of fate leapt Ghani way ahead at 55.27 percent to his astonished rival, trailing behind with just 44.73 percent votes in his basket, in the run-off held on June 14, 2014.

Ghani’s victory declaration made by the Independent Election Commission of Afghanistan on Feb. 18, 2020, thus arrived as no surprise. In the absence of any meaningful electoral reforms in the country, the election results corroborate that it is not the numbers but tribal and ethnic politics, regional clout and international power-play that makes you win an Afghan election.

In his analysis of Afghanistan’s constitutional flaws and election disputes, senior fellow at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Jarret Blanc, lambasts the fraudulent Afghan election system. Jarret documents: “In 2004, then Afghan president Hamid Karzai claimed  victory over his closest rival by nearly 40 percentage points—a result largely preordained by his selection to lead an interim administration in 2001 and his confirmation as transitional president in 2002, after the United States pressured his competitors to leave the race.” The senior fellow continues reprimanding the election rigging by then incumbent president: “Karzai’s re-election in 2009 was more complicated. Although then U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke made clear his dissatisfaction with Karzai, the United States did not become deeply involved until after the first round of the contest, which was riddled with fraud. John Kerry, then chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, jumped in to persuade Karzai to accept a second round after he appeared to fall just short of the 50 percent threshold, though runner-up Abdullah eventually declined.” Finally, the author records his opprobrium at the systematic election fraud: “In 2014, the United States stayed on the sidelines until after a second-round runoff election. Abdullah had a lead in the first round, but Ghani won the second contest after minor candidates rallied to him. There was massive fraud in both rounds, and the state seemed to be teetering on the brink of a coup or another violent confrontation. Kerry, by then serving as the secretary of state, personally brokered both a system to assess fraud and a unity government.”

The Predatory Primacy and Powers of Arg – President’s Palace

Moreover, there is hardly anything independent or autonomous about Afghanistan’s so-called independent institutions – judiciary included. With unlimited patronizing – and punishing – powers residing with the president, everyone looks towards their benefactor for favours. In a tribal society fissured on ethnic and linguistic basis, legislators and district and provincial governors solicit the goodwill of the incumbent president for their perks and privileges and longevity in the office. 

The president not only appoints the provincial and district governors, who remain loyal and accountable to him through the Independent Directorate of Local Governance at Arg, but the incumbent also remains a kingpin in making budgetary allocations and distribution of funds for community-level development. Provincial councils and local (municipal) governments across the country supplicate the palace for patronage and its handouts. 

Kabul’s hold over district governorates has often left NATO commanders stupefied. One has attended a few (debriefing) talks by Canadian force commanders finding themselves baffled at district governors passing on information to the president’s office in Kabul while reporting to their provincial governors. Being alien to the Afghan – or Iranian – culture for that matter, little the commanders knew that such practices had been in vogue since centuries to safeguard against palace intrigues, conspiracies, revolts and treachery in the tribal societies.

However, by bestowing all powers to the office of the president, the Afghan constitution has weakened all other institutions. In the absence of a robust checks and balances system, successive presidents have acted as monarchs. However, in a constitutional logjam situation, when Afghan warlords defied their president, Kabul had to rely on its foreign benefactor to broker extra-constitutional solutions.

It is thus, not surprising for the Taliban to demand a new constitution and a social order based on Islamic system of governance. Afghanistan’s 2004’s constitution had been nothing but a dusted and revived copy of the country’s 1964 constitution merely annulling the monarchy’s role in the Afghan polity. While the King held absolute power, the government’s day-to-day affairs were left to an executive prime minister. The 2004’s constitution, however, bestowed both the privileges and authority to the president.

In her study titled “Pathologies of Centralized State-Building”, Jennifer Murtazashvili argues that “centralization [of power] actually undermines efforts to stabilize and rebuild fragile states. Underlining “several risks” that “centralization poses for effective state-building” the author states: “[M]any highly centralized governments prey on their own citizens and are therefore prone to civil unrest, conflict, and collapse. Most of the countries that have experienced prolonged civil conflict over the past several decades—including Afghanistan, Libya, Myanmar, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen—had extremely centralized governments prior to the outbreak of conflict.” In what we saw in the shape of predatory Afghan governments, Jennifer further highlights, “Another risk is that centralization undermines the quality of public administration by making it largely unresponsive to local demands.”

A Rogue “State-Within-a-State” Intelligence Network 

Not only the Afghan intelligence’s National Directorate of Security (NDS), but also its predecessor, the notorious KhAD, has remained a state-within-a-state in Afghanistan. While the Afghan Khadamat-e-Aetla’at-e-Dawlati or KhAD had been created by the Soviets based on their communist ideology to promote and safeguard Soviet Politburo’s state interests during the Cold War; the Americans established Riyasat-e-Amniyat-e-Milli, or the National Directorate of Security, on Western spying doctrines and approach – without realizing that an Afghan’s biggest rival has remained another Afghan.

Ironically, the NDS not only failed to defeat the Taliban insurgency but also disastrously botched in controlling the spread of ‘violent extremist groups’ like Daesh (Islamic State-Khorasan) across Afghanistan. Instead, the rogue agency has been running-riot, targeting its own people through a ruthless campaign of harassment and persecution. History will blame the U.S. for allowing the Afghan intelligence’s wild-abandon under its watch. An anti-Afghan in nature spying agency gone berserk – which the BBC called “dysfunctional” – NDS has only been safeguarding the interests of Afghan elites and warlords in the government. 

Underlining a dangerous nexus of the C.I.A and the Afghan NDS, Foreign Policy’s Emran Feroz notes in a piece “[L]ittle is known about the NDS, its structure, and to whom it is answering … They are dangerous, and they do not make any compromises … NDS is not just the official successor of KhAD – it is also imitating its brutal tactics to turn Afghanistan into a new police state with the help of U.S. intelligence, which is supporting the regime.”

Furthermore, in its 53-page report documenting 14 cases across nine provinces between 2017 and 2019, the Human Rights Watch further laid bare the atrocities and excesses committed by the NDS sleuths. HRW condemned: “In Afghanistan, both intelligence services have become notorious for their hunt-and-kill tactics, which often result in civilian casualties. It is well documented that CIA units like the Khost Protection Force (KPF), abduct, torture, and kill Afghan civilians deliberately.” The report further denounced, “Showing little concern for the civilian life or accountability to international law, the NDS protected militias have demonstrated serious laws-of-war violations—even war crimes … [They] have simply shot people in their custody and consigned entire communities to the terror of abusive night raids and indiscriminate airstrikes.”

A Deformed and Dispirited Afghan National Defence and Security Force

The Afghan National Army (ANA) and security force on the other hand remain a great disappointment. Similar to their melt-down during the Afghan civil-war of 1992-1996, the extraordinarily bloated force cannot withstand the ideologically motivated and battle-hardened Taliban fighters. Thus, the security forces’ losses at the hands of Taliban or due to attrition had been no news. Except for the special-forces, NATO could not properly equip and train a majority of the Afghan National Army owing to troops’ lack of commitment, language barrier and desertions due to low morale. 

While a lot of deficiencies came out in open about how the Afghan war had been fought to be lost in Afghanistan Papers published by The Washington Post in December 2019, the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) has consistently given a failed report card to the U.S. led coalition forces for acute training shortcomings in the Afghan National Defence and Security Force (ANDSF). 

SIGAR recorded, for instance, “Despite US government expenditures of more than $70 billion in security sector assistance to design, train, advise, assist, and equip the ANDSF since 2002, the Afghan security forces are not yet capable of securing their own nation.” Moreover, the reckless killing of innocent civilians including children by Afghan gunship helicopters confirmed the rationale behind not giving them air assets like gunships and fighter aircrafts as the troops then start settling their tribal and personal feuds themselves. 

To bring the broken Afghan house in order and to bring the country out of its current morass, it is imperative to first understand Afghanistan’s political paradoxes, societal malaise, cultural norms, traditional mores and religious underpinnings before suggesting remedial measures:

1) Afghanistan’s nationalist DNA loathes foreign presence on Afghan soil; though gladly accepts foreign meddling for handouts

2) Afghan people remain ensnared in intrinsic ethno-lingual discords, mutual distrust and a culture of revenge

3) Afghan leadership stays addicted to a historic rentier mindset, leasing-out state sovereignty to foreign powers, with no inhibitions to act as their lackeys to stay in power and legitimize their rule

4) Having weak central control over peripheral areas, Afghan politics espouse tribal warlordism, private militias and violence, duly condoning human and fundamental rights violations

5) For long Afghan economy has thrived on wars and organized crime, particularly opium production and narcotics trade

6) The country has been governed by exploitative, self-serving and thoroughly corrupt elites, having no commitment to the nation or connection with the masses, and

7) Afghanistan’s ethos is defined by a largely rural-based, Islamic-moored, Sharia-adhered, orthodox populace

For centuries Afghans have governed themselves on ethnic and tribal basis resisting foreign invasions. Neglecting international advice to mutually cohabit like a normal nation-state, the Afghans have historically treated their ethnic differences as disputes. However, until they come to terms with their inherent political dichotomies and social discrepancies, peace and prosperity will remain eons away.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.