The election of Ashraf Ghani as president in 2014 gave Afghans and the international community hope that political reform was on its way. However, thus far, little has been achieved to improve governance and reduce corruption, especially at the local level. Based on interviews conducted in four communities in Afghanistan, this report reveals that economic and security changes are having the greatest impact on local politics, keeping the powerful elite in positions of influence as they compete over shifting resources and unpredictable political processes.

Summary

  • Following the negotiated settlement of Afghanistan’s 2014 presidential election, hopes were high for political reform. Realistically, achieving corruption-free, local governance and increased citizen participation was always going to be a long-term endeavor, but even incremental shifts toward this goal have not materialized. This has led to a growing disillusionment with President Ashraf Ghani, Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah, and the prospects for democratic reform more generally.
  • While the actual outcome of the vote and the drawn-out process of political appointments continue to be debated, the local political elite—including those with status as commanders from the jihad and civil war period and, more recently, newcomers relying on international aid and military resources for their influence—have only become more firmly entrenched.
  • With the international troop drawdown well underway, sources of funds are changing. Political figures that previously gained wealth by working with international organizations, and particularly the international military, now must seek alternative sources of income.
  • Many local leaders have used recent rounds of voting in national and provincial elections to consolidate their positions of influence, while simultaneously becoming less deferential to the central government and diversifying economic strategies ahead of the potential decline of state power.
  • Much of the tension in communities results from how recent transitions are altering elite strategies for accessing resources, whether from the government, the international community, or elsewhere. This means upcoming parliamentary elections, when held, are likely to contribute to the consolidation of economic and political power in the hands of an elite few and will strengthen outlying powerholders in the provinces in their struggles against central government control.
  • The international community needs to look beyond broad political reform to the ways in which economic shifts at the local level are both entrenching certain political practices and providing the only real opportunities for change.

About the Report

This report analyzes the impact of current political, economic, and security transitions in Afghanistan on four selected communities. From March to June 2015, researchers from the United States Institute of Peace conducted interviews with government officials, civil society members, tribal elders, and local residents. The study focused on local political changes since the 2014 election; the relationship of these changes to national political, economic, and security trends; and local opinions about upcoming elections, the National Unity Government, and Afghanistan’s future political development.

About the Authors

Anna Larson is a teaching fellow in development studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London; and Noah Coburn is a political anthropologist at Bennington College. They are coauthors of Derailing Democracy in Afghanistan: Elections in an Unstable Political Landscape.


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