Observers rightly say that the Afghanistan campaign will not result in a sustainable outcome without a political strategy to accompany the military operations NATO is conducting. In too many minds, however, formulating a political strategy has been equated to brokering a deal between the Karzai government and the leaders of the Taliban that returns the latter to some share of power. For a variety of reasons, this kind of deal would hold even less popular legitimacy than the current political arrangement does. The Taliban, after all, rarely poll in double-digits among Afghans, who remember their brutal rule too well, and the question of their return prompts near-universal opposition from Afghanistan’s Dari-speaking majority. What political strategists probably should be formulating instead is a political process that affords all Afghans, not just the Taliban, the opportunity to compete fairly for political power, protected by the rule of law. There are a handful of clear political objectives which, taken together, could add up to at least the kernel of such a process.
First, a presidential transfer of power in 2014. A favorite game among Afghanistan watchers is to place odds on whether President Hamid Karzai, whom the constitution requires to vacate his office in 2014, will actually go. Yet go he must, for his staying on in power would signal the emergence of a virtual Popalzai monarchy, with Karzai as permanent head of state. Furthermore, even had he been a perfect president, a dozen years would be quite enough, and Afghanistan badly needs the example of one governing team handing power peacefully to another.
Second, a rebalancing of power among Afghanistan’s branches of government. In practice, Afghanistan’s presidency is far more powerful than the parliament: the Afghan president can issue laws by decree, thereby bypassing the parliament altogether, and the Afghan ministries are responsible to him rather than to parliament. Nor is Afghanistan’s judiciary independent or capable of enforcing the rule of law required to make stability sustainable.
Third, a rebalancing of power between Kabul and the provinces. Afghanistan’s UN-designed system of government is too centralized for such a diverse country, and the central government often lacks the capacity to perform its overcentralized functions. The only solution is to devolve power to subnational administrations that are representative, legitimate, and have budgetary authority. Provincial and district governors should not be satraps, appointed by a too-powerful presidency. Among other things, creating local elected bodies would open political space for currently marginalized Pashtuns to occupy.
Fourth, electoral reform. One presidential election in 2014 will not by itself yield a functioning democracy. Other key steps have to be taken. Afghanistan's single non-transferrable vote (SNTV) system, which is used in only six other countries, should be discarded, as it allows the election of parliamentarians with extremely narrow constituencies. In addition, the formation of political parties, long discouraged by the presidency, is necessary so that Afghans can compete for political power at all levels of government.
The current infatuation with a Taliban deal is bound to end, either when the Taliban refuse to make concessions, as they are highly likely to do, or when Dari-speaking Afghans reject the deal, as they are certain to do. When the deal-making falls apart, political strategists will cast about for alternative ideas, and perhaps then they will turn to a political process like the one described above. By both the Afghan and NATO political clocks, however, it will already be late in the day. Few among the Afghan political class would ever take the initiatives outlined above on their own, as they amount to a curtailing of the incumbents’ power. The international community, meanwhile, would probably find it impossible to get the Afghan elite to accede to such steps once ISAF troops have gone. Therefore, any political process containing the steps outlined above must be defined and started before the end of 2014--or never.
Joel Rayburn is a Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Army and a senior military fellow at the National Defense University
The view expressed in this essay are those of the author and do not reflect the views of the Department of Defense or any of its components.