October 1, 2010 § Leave a comment

AfghanistanWho lives there?: About 30 million people from nearly as many different tribes speaking many different languages. The main language groups are Persian (Dari and Tajik), Pashto and Turkic (Uzbek). Dari and Pashto are the two official languages.

How does the system work? (the theory): The strong executive branch consists of a president and two vice presidents elected every five years by a universal suffrage first past the post election with a runoff election between the two highest placed candidate in the event of no presidential candidate winning 50% of the vote.

The legislative branch has minimal power, but can make laws and ratify the acts of the President. It consists of two chambers: a  lower house (the Wolesi Jirga), the more powerful house, and a House of Elders which is largely advisory but holds some veto powers.

The lower house is elected by universal suffrage single non transferable vote every five years. 249 delegates are elected in total with the 34 provinces of Afghanistan acting as constituencies. In addition the Kuchi nomadic group vote in a separate nationwide constituency to elect 10 delegates. As there are on average at least seven successful candidates from each constituency and as it is not uncommon to have in excess of 2000 candidates, it is not unheard of for candidates to be elected with less than 1% of the vote. The constitution guarantees that at least 64 (2 per district) of the delegates will be female. In districts where at least two female candidates were not successful this is achieved by elevating the result of the highest placed unsuccessful female candidate above that of the lowest placed successful male candidate and repeating the process until enough of the successful candidates are female.

The upper house is appointed in five year terms. One third are appointed by the President, one third by the provincial councils and one third by the district councils. However district councils have not yet been established in Afghanistan and so until they are their one third allocation is also appointed by the provincial councils. Half of the presidential nominees must be women, two must be disabled and two must be Kuchis.

Each province elects a provincial council which in turn elects a governor. In theory each district also elects a district council and each urban area a mayor but implementation of mayors has been patchy and of district governments’ non existent. The duties and responsibilities of local government are not clearly defined and are to a certain extent a matter for negotiation between the governor and the central government.

How does the system work? (the practice): No Afghan government has ever exerted much authority outside of the capital Kabul and the current government is no exception. Some areas are under the control of the Taliban, some are under the control of local warlords – a subgroup of which are also officially part of the government. In much of Afghanistan the writ of the state does not carry much weight and governance is much more informal: villages are run by a Malik (or secular leader) and a Mufti (or religious leader) who emerge by consensus.

Insofar as the central government does have power it resides very clearly with the president and his appointed cabinet – which has been known to include the odd warlord.

Overseas development organisations, particularly those of the United States, and the armed forces stationed in the country play an important part in the politics of the nation – particularly when it comes to development spending. In the 2010 financial year Afghanistan’s national budget was $ 3 billion, whereas in the same year the US state department was spending upwards of $10 billion in the country.

How did we get here?: Afghanistan never really had a strong central state. It was defined as the area between major powers: Persia/Iran, Russia and Britain/Pakistan and, as such, never had more than a titular leadership. Leadership has often been chaotic, in 1976 the  then President of Afghanistan is widely reported to have shot his own Prime Minister dead. Such attempts at statebuilding as there were before 1980 were undone by the subsequent forty years of wars between factions supported by various global powers for geopolitical reasons.

In 2001 the former Taliban regime collapsed at about the same time as the US led invasion. A national loya jirga, or meeting of the elders was held at which the current constitution was approved and the current president, Hamid Karzai was appointed. Since then the politics of Afghanistan has been dominated by various attempts to overthrow the new and fragile state, and by ongoing military operations by international forces. Amidst the chaos several elections have been held – independent confidence in which has not being high.

Who’s in charge?: Political party formation hasn’t been a smooth process in Afghanistan. There was a semi successful communist party until the Soviet invasion significantly reduced communism’s popularity. The Taliban were quite a successful political party in a way. Nowadays there are political parties but even the largest command the support of just a handful of representatives. Most representatives are independent or have loose affiliations with presidential candidates and some with warlords.

Hamid Karzai is by far the most successful politician of the new era, he is not easy to identify in terms of ideology and can best be described as a pragmatist. Other prominent politicians include Karzai’s main rival in the last presidential elections Abdullah Abdullah (another  pragmatist but one with links to the former Northern Alliance (as opposed to Karzai’s more southern, Pashtun support base), Ramazan Bashardost (a member of the Shia religious minority) and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai (a former world bank employee regarded by some as a liberal, others as a technocrat and others as an American stooge).

Prominent warlords include Abdul Rashid Dostum and Ismail Khan.

What does it look like?: In the summer it looks like this:


In the winter it is snowier. Only a very small portion of the land is agriculturally viable and a lack of infrastructure, mountains, deserts and extreme weather make getting around difficult. The only thing that seems to grow really well is the opium poppy.

What are the issues?: The biggest issue is how to build a viable state, develop an economy and build some infrastructure. This leads on to questions of what sort of a nation Afghanistan wants to be, what the appropriate role for religion is, what the attitude to the occupying forces should be and to what extent the warlords and Taliban should be tolerated.

A good source of impartial information is: The Kabul Weekly news is an independent Kabul based private newspaper with significant English language content and a regularly updated website. Pajhwok Afghan news is Afghanistan’s largest English language news source and was set up by the charity IWPR.

A good book is: Ahmed Rashid’s Descent into Chaos: The world’s most unstable region and the threat to global security is occasionally sensationalistic and gets rather bogged down in the geopolitics but is still very good and very readable. Giustozzi’s Empires of Mud: Wars and Warlords in Afghanistan gives superb insights into warlordism and also into the nitty gritty of Afghan politics.

When are the next elections?: Elections for the upper house were held last month (September 2010), results are due next month (November 2010).


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