Afghanistan desperately needs transformative leadership

The 2014 elections offer a last chance for Afghanistan to break away from its cycle of violence and instability.

Afghanistan operates as an oligarchy, writes Arian Sharifi [Reuters]
Afghanistan operates as an oligarchy, writes Arian Sharifi [Reuters]

“… they say if you don’t vote, you get the government you deserve, and if you do, you never get the results you expected.”

This little excerpt from Elizabeth A Bucchianeri’s novel Brushstrokes of a Gadfly speaks well into the reality of the situation ahead of Afghanistan’s presidential elections next year.

The public at large, both domestic and international, are concerned about the viability of holding the elections. Challenges such as a lack of adequate security, inaccessibility of ballots to voters in remote areas, and the possibility of widespread electoral fraud could either delay the holding of the elections, or threaten the integrity and acceptability of their outcome. What most seem to ignore is whether the elections will bring someone to power who can break the country’s vicious circle of conflict and instability.

The status quo

Twelve years after the toppling of the Taliban regime, Afghanistan continues to burn in the flames of a fierce insurgency and a heartless campaign of terrorism. The central government is weak, fragile, corrupt, and trusted neither by its constituents nor its international backers. With little positive change in their lives over the past decade – despite the tens of billions of dollars in international aid – the Afghan populace at large is increasingly weary of their government and the western military presence on their soil.

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Meanwhile, the long war, the thousands of dead and wounded soldiers, the billions of dollars expended, and the uncongenial attitude of Afghan President Karzai toward his western allies have pushed America and its NATO partners to the brink of giving up on Afghanistan, and leaving the country at the mercy of its wolf-like neighbours.

But abandoning Afghanistan could prove as costly to the West as it would to Afghans. A total withdrawal of western forces at this stage will most likely result in the Taliban advancing, the former jihadi groups resorting to arms to ensure their own survival, the central government collapsing, and the country descending into chaos. The disorder and lawlessness that follows would not only turn Afghanistan into a hotbed of Islamist militancy, but can also spill over into Pakistan, and potentially into Iran and Central Asia, making the region a haven for international terrorist groups.

In the face of this bitter reality, America and its NATO partners seem to be willing to give Afghanistan another chance – perhaps a last one – by maintaining a residual force in the country, and continuing financial support to the Afghan government even after the 2014 withdrawal. Should this happen, it would be just enough to prevent a total military victory by the Taliban, and the outbreak of a factional mujahedeen war. But will that be enough?

It will only be enough to ensure the short-term survival of the current regime, giving Afghans another chance to get their act together. However, moving the country toward enduring stability would depend on the next Afghan administration’s aptitude to build a stronger, better government; one that could earn the trust of its own citizens, and could encourage the long-term support of the international community.

The alternative

The most important thing the next president and his team must do, therefore, is to transform the government, focusing on curbing corruption and improving the rule of law. Prevalent, systematic corruption has infected all organs of the government apparatus, affecting everything from security provision to revenue collection, from fighting crime to providing basic social services.

A lack of the rule of law has virtually turned the country into an oligarchy, with a number of powerful individuals and groups dividing up the political and economic privileges among themselves at the expense of the rest of the nation. With no alternative, people are turning to the Taliban or local power players in many areas of the country in order to settle disputes or to obtain needed resources, undermining the writ of the Afghan state and law.

Donor funds on hold due to Afghan corruption

Curbing corruption and improving the rule of law can substantially improve the situation on multiple fronts. Namely, less corruption and better rule of law will lead to better governance, as more qualified, committed individuals would replace corrupt government officials, strengthening the government’s administrative capacity; more revenue could be collected, enabling the government to fund public programmes and pay better salaries to civil servants; better social services could be provided to the populace; and more domestic and foreign investment could be attracted, offering employment and earning opportunities for the citizens.

This will substantially drive public support away from the Taliban, increasing the government’s legitimacy. In the meantime, the international community will likely be encouraged to remain committed to Afghanistan, and extend its support for the longer term. With the government’s institutional capacity improving and its base of public support widening, the Taliban will be pressed to decrease their demands, assuming more conciliatory postures in any future negotiations. In brief, improving the quality of governance could open a route toward enduring peace and stability in Afghanistan.

Given the current weakness of the government, the deeply-rooted and systematic corruption, and the strength and influence of factional power players, achieving the above is no easy task. It is, nevertheless, possible. It necessitates the rising to power of a good leader; someone with the vision, ability, commitment, and courage to do away with political deal-making and compromise – a phenomenon that has seriously undermined state-building efforts in the past twelve years – and take bold measures to transform the government.

Such a leader would let go of the “usual suspects” who, for having tribal backing or private armies, have dominated Afghanistan’s political and economic scenes for years, and would bring knowledgeable, committed, and patriotic Afghans to leadership positions within the administration. Only such a team would be able to sterilise the government apparatus of the infection of corruption and law-breaking, and would give Afghanistan a new start.

Whether Afghanistan has such leaders is not a question, but whether one of them will get the opportunity to transform the country is to be determined by how politics will play out in the coming presidential elections. If with wisdom, courage, and luck, Afghans elect a transformative leader, the country will have a chance of moving toward stability. Otherwise, the elections will, at best mean the continuation of the status quo – only a temporary delay in the country’s eventual descent into chaos.

Arian M Sharifi is a PhD candidate at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, and a Partner at Afghanistan Holding Group, an employee-owned company, aiming to create a transparent and sustainable service economy in Afghanistan.

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