Afghanistan's Toxic Politics


After last weekend's presidential election, Afghanistan seemed poised for its first democratic transition. Despite attacks that killed more than 50 people, the Taliban couldn't keep millions of Afghans from the polls and has revealed itself to be no match for the concerted popular will.

Unfortunately, Afghanistan's politicians may end up doing what the Taliban couldn't. Credible allegations of fraud have badly tainted the election to succeed President Hamid Karzai. The winner of the first round on April 5, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, has threatened not to accept the runoff vote count, which is to be announced next month. Regardless of who emerges the winner, whether Abdullah or former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani, an ugly victory will make it much harder to meet the country's huge challenges.

The best immediate course for both men is not to renounce the vote or resort to backroom deals, but to demand resolution of the thousands of fraud claims. The official mechanisms set up for that purpose, not to mention independent election monitoring groups, are more robust than they were in 2009, when ballot stuffing essentially enabled Karzai's re-election. The U.S., which has already won the agreement of both candidates for a continued troop presence, also has a strong interest in supporting the process as it plays out.

Sore losers can wreak havoc on Afghanistan's fragile polity. Indeed, with seven major ethnic groups, each a majority in one or more regions, Afghanistan's political stability has always depended less on top-down control than on a leader's ability to balance competing ethnic and regional interests. And only a politically stable government will be able to negotiate with the Taliban, as must inevitably happen in order to end decades of conflict, from a position of strength.

Off the battlefield, the biggest challenge confronting Afghanistan's next president is the corruption that saps its economy, its citizens' faith and livelihoods, and foreign donors' willingness to give. Despite a decade of well-meaning outside engagement, Afghanistan is ranked by Transparency International as the world's most corrupt country. Money laundering is so rife that next week, Afghanistan's financial institutions may be blacklisted.

The list of anti-corruption measures Afghanistan would be wise to adopt is long: for starters, money-laundering laws that meet global standards. Another top priority should be ensuring that the Afghan National Security Forces get the pay, benefits, supplies and equipment they need. Afghanistan faces aid reductions if it doesn't meet good-governance standards set out by donors in 2012. (The U.S., meanwhile -- the single biggest donor -- needs to issue clear anti-corruption guidelines for its own assistance program.)

Delivering broad economic growth is one of the best ways to stop Afghanistan from relapsing into turmoil. High levels of aid, equal to 98 percent of gross domestic product in 2010, have kept the country on a huge sugar high. But poverty and inequality haven't necessarily improved. Boosting agriculture, which half of all Afghans rely on for income, would be one of the quickest ways to help: Productivity is still 50 percent of its pre-war levels, and the country can't feed itself. In that respect, investments in irrigation, electricity and roads are more of a priority than longer-term educational spending.

Some see a secret developmental weapon in troves of mineral assets, which were valued at more than $1 trillion, according to a 2010 U.S. survey. Others tout newly discovered reserves of hydrocarbons and projects such as the TAPI gas pipeline spanning Turkmenistan and India. But Afghanistan lacks the hard and soft infrastructure to make such dreams a quick reality. And without a strong commitment to transparency and oversight, exploiting such resources will just feed the corruption that poisons the Afghan state. All the more reason for the two men who would be its next president to work together to ensure the winner is seen as legitimate.

--Editors: James Gibney, Michael Newman.

To contact the editor on this story:
David Shipley at