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.

Summary

  • 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.

Related Publications

Scott Worden on Afghan Elections and the Peace Process

Scott Worden on Afghan Elections and the Peace Process

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

By: Scott Worden

A week and a half after Afghan presidential polls, the results remain unclear. But, we do know that turnout was historically low, largely due to dire security conditions. Meanwhile, with the peace process stalled, USIP’s Scott Worden says the upsurge in U.S. military operations against the Taliban is a “pressure tactic, not a victory strategy.”

Electoral Violence; Democracy & Governance; Peace Processes

Loya Jirgas and Political Crisis Management in Afghanistan: Drawing on the Bank of Tradition

Loya Jirgas and Political Crisis Management in Afghanistan: Drawing on the Bank of Tradition

Monday, September 30, 2019

Many times over the past century, Afghan political elites have utilized a loya jirga, or grand national assembly, when they have needed to demonstrate national consensus. Based on traditional village jirgas convened to resolve local disputes, loya jirgas have been used to debate and ratify constitutions, endorse the country's position and alliances in times of war, and discuss how and when to engage the Taliban in peace talks. In light of the growing political uncertainty in Afghanistan, this report examines the strengths and weaknesses of the loya jirga as an institution for resolving national crises.

Type: Special Report

Democracy & Governance

How to push Taliban for compromise? Ask the women doing it.

How to push Taliban for compromise? Ask the women doing it.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

By: Palwasha L. Kakar

The halt in the U.S.-Taliban dialogue, plus Afghanistan’s September election, has forced a hiatus in formal peace efforts in the Afghan war—and that creates an opening to strengthen them. A year of preliminary talks has not yet laid a solid foundation for the broad political settlement that can end the bloodshed. While talks so far have mainly excluded Afghan women, youth and civil society, the sudden pause in formal peacemaking offers a chance to forge a more inclusive, and thus reliable, process. Even better, a little-noted encounter in Qatar between women and Taliban leaders signals that a broader process is doable.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Gender; Peace Processes

What to Watch for in Afghanistan’s Presidential Election

What to Watch for in Afghanistan’s Presidential Election

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

By: Scott Worden; Colin Cookman

After several delays, Afghans will finally head to the polls on Saturday to elect their next president. The election comes amid an indefinite stall in the year-long U.S.-Taliban negotiations following the cancellation of a high-level summit earlier in the month. There has been a debate over the sequencing of elections and the peace process for months, but the vote will move ahead this weekend. As with all post-2001 Afghan elections, security risks and the potential for fraud and abuse loom over these polls. USIP’s Scott Worden and Colin Cookman look at how insecurity will impact the legitimacy of the vote and what measures have been taken to combat electoral mismanagement and fraud.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Electoral Violence; Democracy & Governance

View All Publications