Afghanistan’s Post-Tokyo Presidential Decree Both More and Less than Meets the Eye?

By: 
William Byrd and Attaullah Nasib

Afghanistan’s Presidential Decree of July 21 has been billed as an “anti-corruption decree,” setting forth the Afghan government’s concrete plans for fighting corruption. But even a cursory reading reveals the decree is about far more than just anti-corruption. In fact, it appears to be a detailed short-term work program for 32 government ministries and agencies, also including suggestions for actions by the National Assembly and the Supreme Court.

August 16, 2012

Afghanistan’s Presidential Decree of July 21 has been billed as an “anti-corruption decree,” setting forth the Afghan government’s concrete plans for fighting corruption. It follows President Karzai’s speech to the National Assembly on June 21 and the Tokyo international conference on July 8.

But even a cursory reading reveals the decree is about far more than just anti-corruption.  In fact, it appears to be a detailed short-term work program for 32 government ministries and agencies, also including suggestions for actions by the National Assembly and the Supreme Court.

Wading through the long list of action items – over 150 of them – it is not easy to separate the wheat from the chaff, but here are a few examples of initiatives that may be important:

  • The Supreme Court, in the course of six months, should complete and finalize all dossiers currently in process, especially those related to corruption, land usurpation and serial killings.
  • Within six months, private institutions' and government officials’ suspicious wealth should be assessed and a report sent to the president every two months.
  • An organized and transparent election platform should be prepared that guarantees people's participation, and a schedule for presidential, parliamentary and provincial council elections within three months must be created. The electoral law should be completed and sent to Cabinet for approval within two months.
  • Complete the work on the Kabul Bank matter assigned to the Kabul Bank Audit Delegation, whose report should be presented to the President within one month.
  • Publish all contracts, with all details not just summaries, online and through other media outlets.
  • Publicize the list of individuals and companies who engage in unauthorized and illegal mining extraction within two months.
  • Finalize a specific plan to provide for transparency regarding mining contracts in the country and present it to the Cabinet within three months.

This list provides an indication of the breadth and depth of the measures the decree calls for. There are major issues and problems, however. First, the number of actions is very large, and they are not prioritized at all between those that are most critical and others which may be less essential. Ironically, whereas the Tokyo Declaration was relatively disciplined in not including too many areas or benchmarks (20-plus benchmarks for the government in five areas), the decree takes a “Christmas tree” approach including the full gamut of government agencies and seemingly almost every conceivable action item. It would have been better to focus on no more than two or three key actions for each ministry and agency, and also to leave out of the decree those ministries or agencies whose work is less critical for implementing Afghanistan’s transition objectives. 

Second, the decree is overly ambitious. Not only are there a huge number of benchmarks, but also there are extremely tight deadlines for many of them—as little as one month in some cases and most in the three to six-months range. Some of the actions called for are difficult, in some cases representing a backlog from past years, and it seems very doubtful whether such issues could be effectively addressed within a few months.  And not least, the sheer number of documents and amount of paperwork requested is daunting. So the question naturally arises as to whether the decree might have been set up to fail.   

Third, many, if not most, of the actions are process-oriented rather than action-oriented, failing to specify concrete results. The words “prepare a plan for” or “submit a report on” are littered throughout the decree. Indeed, it is possible that many of the benchmarks in the decree could be met, but without achieving intended results or significantly improving Afghanistan’s situation.

Fourth, the quality of actions and results is not specified, let alone guaranteed. Only a careful review would be able to ascertain quality. A mechanical assessment focused on “checking the boxes” (i.e. just determining whether something was done) would be insufficient. 

Fifth, the decree sometimes makes general exhortations which may not mean much in practice and will be hard to monitor. Examples include the prohibition against unlawfully imprisoning, arresting, or placing anyone under investigation, the prohibition against entering into contracts with people in high government positions or their associates, and exhorting high-ranking officials to separate themselves from supporting criminals, and to refrain from hiring based on intermediary recommendations.

And finally, the decree is silent about whether there will be any sanctions for failing to get any of this done. On the contrary, the decree notes that it should not interfere with the daily work of agencies and ministries.

So there is both more and less than meets the eye to this decree. It is about far more than anti-corruption, and even if a select minority of the most important actions is wholeheartedly implemented, a great deal would be accomplished. On the other hand, the decree is overly ambitious, and by its very breadth and failure to prioritize what items are most important, it risks losing focus. Many of the actions are process-oriented rather than results-oriented, and the sheer amount of documentation and reporting required may undermine the effort by diverting limited government capacity away from substantive actions. A best-case outcome might be if a few of the most important and essential provisions (such as those related to elections and anti-corruption actions) are genuinely implemented in a way that makes a real difference in these crucial areas. Negative outcomes could range from the decree soon becoming ignored and irrelevant—which would become apparent within a few months, to an inundation of documents as ordered in the decree but which don’t significantly improve Afghanistan’s transition trajectory or prospects.

August 16, 2012
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