Afghanistan 2014: political transition

As Afghanistan heads for presidential elections on April 5, the country is going through one of the most critical periods in its post-Taleban history: the transition (Inteqal). 

Giuliano Battiston
30 March 2014

The term Inteqal is used to indicate the progressive handover of responsibility for security from NATO-led ISAF forces to Afghan ones. However, as has been argued, just as it is misleading to talk about ‘the war’ in Afghanistan, “it is equally unhelpful to talk about ‘the transition’; there are multiple transitions going on simultaneously at different levels and in different locales in Afghanistan”.  Transition does not regard solely the military sphere (the aspect given the vast majority of attention), but many other sectors - financial, fiscal, political - in which the transfer of ‘sovereignty’ is seen as potentially riskier.

This reductive interpretation is often accompanied by a similar myopic view: the idea of transition as a one-way transfer of power, knowledge, skills, from those who are proficient (i.e. the international players) to those who are not and who have to be taught (i.e. the Afghans). It occludes what is even more necessary: an opposite process through which the Afghans’ knowledge, demands and expectations are brought into the political agenda on Afghanistan, shaping it.

This author has recently conducted four months of field-research in seven Afghan provinces trying to understand what some civil society representatives (a minority but influential part of the population) expect, fear and demand for the near future and how they interpret the conflict’s drivers and the ways out. In this and a series of articles to follow, I present some of the research outcomes, ahead of the presidential elections.

A sense of uncertainty

As in all transitional periods, the Afghan Inteqal is a phase with many unknown elements and potential risks. Unsurprisingly, a sense of uncertainty dominates the research participants’ feelings, shaping their expectations and generating fears. There are a number of elements hindering a clear understanding of the processes under way: the heterogeneity of the interests at stake and the plurality of sides taking part in the conflict, either directly or indirectly (the idea to be caught in a new “Great Game”); the doubts that the peace process with Armed Opposition Groups (AOG) - as it has been handled until now - will produce results over the short term; territorial fragmentation regarding security, stability and administrative effectiveness; the incognita of the training, equipment and cohesion of Afghan security forces; the weakness of the economic system, highly dependent on foreign aid; the extreme volatility of internal power dynamics, complicated by the forthcoming election.

A request for commitment

The country is perceived as still extremely fragile. Due to this perception and due to the widespread concern that neighbouring countries will be prone to exploit Afghanistan’s vulnerability once foreign troops withdraw, interviewees demand a greater commitment from the western international community. However, this does not equate to a request for a military presence, since foreign countries, especially the US, are seen with great suspicion. Rather than for a prolonged military engagement, in many cases the international community is asked to opt for a paradigmatic shift, turning from an approach based on military priorities to one on civilian and governance goals (the request is tied to the awareness that the international obsession with military security has acted to the detriment of human security).

Political transition

The above-mentioned request is not surprising. What is more interesting to note is that many of the interviewees believe that without an internal political transition and a strengthening of government legitimacy, even a lasting and well-orchestrated commitment by the international community will prove useless. Transferring competences and resources to a government lacking in legitimacy and to an inefficient institutional system means aggravating the country’s instability, many say.

This clearly leads us to the elections, seen as a major turning point by both domestic and international observers. General John R. Allen, United States Marine Corps (Ret.), whose last job was Commander, International Security Assistance Force (COMISAF), in a paper coauthored with Michèle Flournoy (former US Undersecretary of Defense for Policy from 2009 to 2012) and Michael O’Hanlon (director of research for Foreign Policy at Brooking Institution and former CIA advisor advocating a meddling in Afghanistan elections) acknowledge that “the real male-or-break political event for Afghanistan will likely be the 2014 election”, adding that “the verdict on the war in Afghanistan may be settled less on the country’s battlefields than at its polling stations next spring”. (For a different conclusion see here.)

According to people I spoke with, the way in which the elections will be held will lead to one of two scenarios: progressive improvement in the relations between the population and the government if they prove to be a peaceful transfer of power; or a drastic worsening in the situation if they are tainted by fraud and vote rigging. However, the majority do not expect the first scenario to come into being. Furthermore, they fear that this could further polarize the country and fuel the insurgency. Why?

Taleban strength is government weakness

In the eyes of almost all of the interlocutors met with, the growing divide between the government and the population and the lack of trust in the government is a key factor causing anti-government mobilisation. The Afghan government is seen as lacking in legitimacy, impervious to citizens’ demands, unable to provide for their basic needs, profit-oriented, driven by a predatory approach. Many say that the AOG’s strength is the weakness of government which is also blamed for the fact that it is unable to create a social and institutional context that prevents anti-government mobilisation.

Injustice: corruption and impunity

The research clearly shows that the lack of confidence in the government is rooted in a widespread sense of injustice, embodied in two main “coordinates”: corruption and a culture of impunity. Participants widely believed that corruption has become one of the largest dangers to the country’s stability, since it is seen to further undermine what little legitimacy the government has left. Interestingly, while the local political system is criticised for making corruption a daily practice, the international community is stigmatised for the establishment of a culture of impunity. Almost all of the interviewees spoke out strongly against support given to “warlords’’ and local power-brokers: instead of depriving them of power and fostering a change in leadership, the international community is perceived to have opted to place their trust in those who had helped destroy the country in the past.

Frustrated demands for political change

Today, seeing Afghanistan dominated by the same men who the Afghan people wanted to free themselves from gives rise to a high level of frustration. While seeing some of them as presidential candidates (or at least vice-president) confirms to them that - whoever is elected - the demand for political change will remain frustrated. Within the Afghan political landscape, the urgency for a radical swing clashes with the resiliency of the past.

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