Weekly Insights and Analysis

Dramatic Changes Unlikely Following Afghan Elections

August 19, 2009

By William Stadden Cole

The Afghanistan Presidential election being held this week, with a possible October run-off, will have a winner. But, whoever that winner is and whatever policy redirection may be in store, dramatic changes on the ground are unlikely.

Despite the political rhetoric inherent in all democratic electioneering, the next President – whether Hamid Karzai, Abdullah Abdullah, Ashraf Ghani, or any of three dozen other candidates – will take the reins of a nation with few if any game-changing opportunities ahead. The problem is that real policy options, the ones faced every day on the ground in Afghanistan, have never been as many or a varied as they have appeared from a distance. Despite over-inflated expectations, the outcomes in terms of peace and reconstruction were always going to be slower and more mixed than initially hoped. That’s not to say that mistakes, big ones, were not made on all sides, domestic and international. No question, the people of Afghanistan deserve better government. But how much better could it have been and can it be, given that policy making in this country is always more messy, murky, and limited than it appears in hindsight. That fact will not change no matter who is sitting in the Presidential Palace after September.

The excitement and optimism in Afghanistan in late 2001 was understandable after a generation of war and brutal authoritarian government, first under the Communists, then under the Mujahedeen warlords, then under the Taliban. Afghans had been through tough times. And the worst, finally, seemed to be over: the Taliban and their al-Qaida backers were on the run, the foreign assistance machine was gearing up, the warlords were in a wait-and-see mode, and no one seemed worried about a reemergence of the opium trade that the Taliban had crushed over the previous two years. As the Bonn agenda played out, a new Constitution was ratified, a president and national and provincial bodies were elected and seated, the foundations for some basic services and infrastructure were put in place, and national military and police forces began to be trained.

But beneath that upbeat surface, darker currents were drifting the nation into dangerous waters: warlords with some of the worst human rights abuses on record were settling into major positions of power, new state institutions were being shaped through unsavory backroom deals, rent-seeking and land theft became commonplace, and early poppy eradication efforts were utterly ineffective. The result today is a country saddled with a host of difficulties: leadership that is often seen as ineffectual and indecisive, corruption that is rampant and pervasive, a drug trade that makes up half the economy, and an Islamist insurgency that has risen from the ashes of defeat to threaten the whole nation-building project.

How did things get to such a state?  Could it have been better? Will a new government – whether a revivified Karzai Administration or another – be able to make it any better? Answers to these questions could fill volumes, but review of policy choices over the past few years show that most were made in an environment offering few options.

First, on indecisiveness in leadership. Looking back over the past seven years, it seems clear that too many compromises have been made. For example, there is little question that Afghanistan would be better off today had the most vicious human rights abusers of the previous decade been excluded from the Emergency Loya Jirga in June 2002, and from the national election that followed. But who would have driven those people out of the tent and at what cost at the time? Many were still seen as legitimate leaders and protectors by the ethnic and sectarian communities from which they came. And most were still well-armed and readily able to draw on years of experience as deadly insurgents. How many more Mullah Omars and Gulbuddin Hekmatyars could the nascent Afghan state and the international community have taken on at that time? And how much could have or should have the international community second guessed and undermined the deeply-rooted and far-sighted preference for negotiation and compromise with one’s enemies that lies at the heart of traditional Afghan political culture? The slow displacement of the worst offenders by more qualified officials, with the Bosnian case as a national example, at least shows the possibilities of the approach. But the tendency toward negotiated outcomes and insider deals on everything from government appointments to administration of law has clearly taken a heavy toll on the quality of governance.

Surely the rise of pernicious and pervasive corruption is more clear-cut, reflecting a combination of failure of Afghan leadership to take tough measures and too much tolerance by the international community. Corruption on this scale wastes resources and undermines the legitimacy of leadership and ultimately of the state itself. And yet, here again, the reality is complex and the options are limited. With billions of international dollars flowing into a shattered economy, driving up land and other assets values, and with no longstanding and well-functioning state institutions to hold officials in check, what outcome other than corruption on an enormous scale could have been expected? More success in building counter-corruption institutions in the early years might have helped, but only marginally. Five decades of post-WWII experience with state-building in developing countries has taught us that construction of effective and responsive state institutions takes decades, not months. And counter-corruption efforts that depend on the well-functioning legal, administrative, and police institutions are notoriously hard to put in place. A more direct method might have been to insert international advisors with vetos into all Afghan government procurement decisions. But that would rob the nation of any claim to sovereignty, seriously eroding the legitimacy of the Afghan state in the eyes of its citizens.

Could the growth of poppy production and the opium trade, which fuels corruption and now funds the Taliban insurgency, have been curtailed earlier on?  Possibly. Surely the international community could have focused on this challenge earlier, investing more intelligence assets, destroying more poppy fields, and unleashing far greater force against the major traffickers. Inadequate efforts were made in those early years. But it is also clear that any major campaign between 2002 and 2005 involving foreign troops (the only ones available) to destroy the main source of livelihood of many communities just as national and local elections were being prepared would have generated a serious backlash and unacceptable political outcomes in some parts of the country. The problem at that time was to establish progressive leadership and fight a low-level insurgency; the opium trade could be dealt with later. In more recent years, with the drug trade now funding the insurgency and fueling corruption, the government and the international community are putting more resources into the fight. The problem, as with inclusion of warlords in government, preferring negotiation and compromise to decisiveness, and allowing corruption to rise to spectacular levels, the opium and poppy trade has now become a many-headed hydra that threatens the future of the country.

The first Afghan elections were a remarkable achievement, marking as they did the reassertion of national unity, hope for a better future, and trust that a sovereign, democratically-elected government could lead the way to peace and reconstruction. In stark contrast, the elections today come at a time of heightened insecurity and disillusionment, and the turnout will surely be lower. Afghans do deserve better government and one hopes that they will get it after today. But, the governance choices ahead for the next occupant of the Presidential Palace and for the international community, whatever the outcome of today’s elections and whatever the promises that have been made, will almost certainly continue to be as messy, murky, and limited as those of the past. Whatever the outcome of the election, the international community needs to stay the course, remaining committed to the Afghan people over the long haul.

William S. Cole is The Asia Foundation’s Senior Director for Governance, Law, and Civil Society. He can be reached at


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