On October 9th, 2004, Afghanistan turned the corner. After decades of invasion, civil war, and anarchy, Hamid Karzai became the first democratically-elected President of a united Afghanistan. Despite this victory, the country was far from stable and even further from the UN Millennial Development Goals like universal education and reduced child mortality, but who could dispute that progress was being made? Hamid Karzai’s presidency was succeeded by the next democratically-elected president of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani, in 2014. President Ghani had a tumultuous rise to power. He had to sign a power-sharing agreement with his opponent in order to secure his position. Regardless of the difficulties, Afghanistan had now witnessed a peaceful transition of power and was in-line with international standards overall.
With democracy established, U.S. efforts in Afghanistan have focused on combating the Taliban militant presence and, more recently, the rise of the Islamic State. The international agenda has switched from state-capacity building toward hunting extremists and building a secure Afghanistan. The majority of the world would probably agree that security is a serious concern in Afghanistan; however, is it the primary concern?
In spite of a democracy that seems to be thriving, Afghanistan faces serious challenges to establishing a legitimate and transparent political authority. The state needs effective leaders in order to transition from its failed system with no central authority to a western-style representative democracy – effective leaders that Afghanistan currently lacks. In November of 2016, Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum was spotted at a Buzkashi match in Northern Afghanistan. It is not uncommon for political figures to be seen watching the pseudo-polo game endogenous to Afghanistan, but what happened next was atypical. Ahmad Ishchi, a political rival of General Dostum, was spotted getting into a scuffle with General Dostum. Witnesses say Ishchi was beaten badly by Dostum’s guards and subsequently hauled away in a van. After taken to an offsite location, Ishchi was tortured repeatedly by General Dostum’s guards and the General himself. In spite of an established and U.S.-backed democracy, the Vice President of Afghanistan beat and abducted a political rival in broad daylight. Police issued a warrant in January, but failed to take action until mid-February due to fear of political repercussions. General Dostum is currently under investigation, but has maintained his innocence by defending the kidnapping and torture of Ahmad Ishchi as part of a “criminal investigation”
U.S. foreign policy objectives have highlighted the need to continue to support Afghan troops in their goal to establish a secure environment for Afghan citizens. While important, this has drawn attention away from the serious concerns regarding Afghanistan’s central government. Ashraf Ghani’s election should have been a turning point in the development of the country, but instead corruption is climbing and transparency is collapsing. The credibility of the government cannot stay intact as long as politicians are allowed to strong-arm opponents and assert their will over the country.
Vice President Dostum is just the most recent example of politicians who are monopolizing authority in the country—a testament to the rampant corruption the administration faces. In 2016, Afghanistan ranked 169th on the International Corruption Index, leading only Yemen and handful of other failed states. Billions of U.S. dollars and international funds have poured into the region only to be lost to bribery and fraud. In 2011, for example, the Kabul Central Bank was accused of losing $850 million to a fraud pyramid scheme. One of the most critical problems is the absence of competent leadership.
General Dostum has been implicated in human rights violations, (primarily war crimes) dating back to before Karzai’s election, and he is not alone. A number of current prominent politicians and officials were also named conspirators in a publication by the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission. Crimes included mass executions, mass rapes, conscription of child soldiers, and humanitarian blockades. A country sans leaders of integrity cannot expect to enforce the principles of democracy.
Does that mean hope is lost of Afghanistan? Absolutely not. If only for the sake of the Afghani people, there should be a continued coalition of support to rectify the corruption. A stronger focus must be placed on supporting competent leaders, strengthening institutions, and developing infrastructure. Foreign aid is paramount, but allocating funds in the right place is just as important. Additionally, an international effort to condemn war crimes and violations of fundamental democratic values is critical to building a morally-sound government. Finally, an acknowledgment that security solutions alone cannot and will not improve the fragile state system and boost the potential of the country. Afghanistan is a country with incredible potential. The rich culture and powerful history deserve to have a place in the international order. It’s time the global community recognized it as well.