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

What to Expect from the Doha Conference on Afghanistan

What to Expect from the Doha Conference on Afghanistan

Thursday, February 15, 2024

By: Kate Bateman;  Andrew Watkins

On February 18-19, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres will convene a meeting on Afghanistan in Doha to discuss the ongoing humanitarian and human rights crises and the recent report on a way forward by U.N. Special Coordinator for Afghanistan Feridun Sinirlioğlu. Special envoys from U.N. member states and international organizations will attend; representatives from Afghan civil society, women’s groups and Taliban officials have also been invited. The conference is a critical, high-level opportunity for donors and the region to chart next steps on how to improve the situation in Afghanistan and engage with the Taliban regime.

Type: Analysis

Global Policy

The Latest @ USIP: U.N. Engagement in Afghanistan

The Latest @ USIP: U.N. Engagement in Afghanistan

Wednesday, December 20, 2023

By: Kanni Wignaraja

While some parts of the Afghan economy managed to stabilize in 2023, poverty continued to increase and now stands at 69 percent of the population. Kanni Wignaraja, director for Asia and the Pacific at the U.N. Development Programme, discusses UNDP’s efforts to build resilience in local markets and promote women-owned enterprises in Afghanistan; explores ways to navigate relations with the Taliban; and examines how the decline in international aid is affecting humanitarian efforts in the country.

Type: Blog

EconomicsHuman Rights

How the Taliban Enables Violence Against Women

How the Taliban Enables Violence Against Women

Thursday, December 7, 2023

By: Belquis Ahmadi

In just 28 months, the Taliban have dismantled Afghan women’s and girls’ rights — imposing draconian restrictions regarding their education, employment and freedom of movement. Any perceived violation of these oppressive policies is often met with harassment, intimidation, and verbal and physical abuse orchestrated by the Taliban’s Ministry of Vice and Virtue. And when women are detained by authorities, they have been subjected to cruel treatment, including torture.

Type: Analysis

GenderConflict Analysis & Prevention

Afghanistan’s Economy Once Again Nears the Precipice

Afghanistan’s Economy Once Again Nears the Precipice

Friday, November 17, 2023

By: Belquis Ahmadi;  William Byrd, Ph.D.;  Scott Worden

More than two years into Taliban rule, Afghanistan remains one of the poorest countries in the world with some of the highest humanitarian needs. The situation has shown some signs of stabilizing over the last year — but many Afghan households are still struggling to procure basic needs, and many women have been driven from the workforce altogether. Unfortunately, financial troubles loom ahead, and the already beleaguered Afghan economy is now projected to decline. Combined with population growth and the influx of thousands of Afghans forced to return from neighboring Pakistan, this is a recipe for increased humanitarian need over the longer term in the absence of major structural and political reforms.

Type: Analysis

EconomicsHuman Rights

View All Publications