Provincial Governors in Afghan Politics

January 8, 2016
Dipali Mukhopadhay

The presidency of Hamid Karzai was a significant transition for Afghanistan. This report describes subnational politics—specifically, provincial governorships—over the period in general terms, exploring the gaps between assumptions that drove belief in the possibility of a radically new and improved brand of governance and the realities on the ground. The findings aim to inform a more realistic outlook not only on Afghan politics past and future, but also on subsequent foreign-led interventions to foster improved governance in conflict-ridden countries worldwide.


  • In post-2001 Afghanistan, the president’s prerogative to shape (or dictate) provincial appointments was a vital tool for managing competition, resources, and conflict in Kabul and the provinces. A provincial governor’s primary value was, thus, not in governing a province. Foreign-led state-building and counterinsurgency efforts operating under the assumption that subnational governance was about “governing” were bound to fail before they even started.
  • Absent clearly defined terms of reference, governors ranged from heavy-handed strongmen to forward-looking technocrats. The position was vaguely defined and limited on paper but could be radically augmented in various informal and unofficial ways.
  • President Ashraf Ghani may have wished to usher in a new era of “good” governors, but assumptions about the inherent value of technocratic rule and the inherent risk of strongman politics have proven, time and again, to be out of sync with the realities of Afghan politics.
  • As long as the Taliban insurgency rages, the Islamic State presence remains a threat, and foreign troops withdraw, access to hard power will remain at a premium in Afghanistan’s political marketplace. As such, Western policymakers should keep their expectations for the National Unity Government in check.

About the Report

This report analyzes the role of the Afghan provincial governor during Hamid Karzai’s presidency and how it might develop under the new coalition government. Drawing on interviews conducted in Kabul in the spring of 2014 as well as previous research and published work by the author, the report is part of the broader work being done by the United States Institute of Peace on Afghanistan’s ongoing political transition.

About the Author

Dipali Mukhopadhyay is an assistant professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and a member of the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies. The author of Warlords, Strongman Governors, and the State in Afghanistan, she made her first trip to Afghanistan in 2004 and has been conducting research there since 2007.

January 8, 2016