International Affairs Forum: Recent presidential elections in Afghanistan have been marred by allegations of fraud and seem to have shaken popular trust in the democratic process. It is likely that the Election Commission will announce President Karzai as the winner, and this may lead to a precarious political situation in the country. What are your thoughts on the election and the manner in which it was conducted?
Mr. Haroun Mir: The Afghan Presidential election was ill-prepared. Lack of security and incompetence within The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), which has a clear international mandate to help organize Afghan elections, lead to stern allegations of fraud. In addition, internal division within UNAMA, which were leaked to the media, certainly fed popular suspicions about transparency in, and legitimacy of, this election. In fact, this election was postponed because of lack of preparedness from April to August; we Afghans were convinced that in the current security context we would have not been able to hold a free and fair election in any case.
The organization and conclusion of the Presidential election in itself is not the ultimate objective of NATO in Afghanistan. The main objective of this election was to increase the legitimacy of the next president and therefore the next Afghan government. This in turn, would advance the global war on terrorism. However, low voter turnout and serious allegations of fraud tarnished the credibility of the election. In addition, the president and government emerging after this election will lack credibility not only in the eyes of the Afghan people, but will also shake public confidence in NATO countries which have high stakes in the country.
IA-Forum: Some commentators have suggested that election results be voided or an investigation launched, so that breaches such as counting votes from ‘ghost sites’ be rectified, leading to a run-off election? Others have suggested a national-unity government with Mr. Karzai’s opponents, notably Mr. Abdullah Abdullah, and also Mr. Ghani part of such a government – is this a good idea? Or should there be another Loya Jirga to restore trust in the democratic process?
Mr. Mir: At this stage, we are faced with two scenarios: one would be to declare President Karzai the winner in the first round, and he could form a national unity government by extending an olive branch to his main opposition camp.
The other scenario is that the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) would invalidate enough of Mr. Karzai's vote so that he could not win in the first round. In this instance, we are headed for a run-off between Mr. Karzai and Mr. Abdullah.
I think both scenarios are disastrous for Afghans and the US administration, which needs a strong and functioning government in Kabul. In the first scenario, we will have a very weak coalition government which will remain dysfunctional and will be unable to provide justice, security, and basic services to a population that already feels disenfranchised in the current political climate. The second scenario is more problematic, because it is likely that we will face the same challenges as the first round and it may result in an even worse political crisis: lack of legitimacy and rampant fraud in the first round was bad enough, but if the second round of elections is not handled properly, it would certainly cause greater disaffection among Afghans, not to mention popular confidence in NATO countries.
Calling another loya jirga is like opening a box of Pandora, where we cannot manage delegates, who would most probably bring too many issues to the table and vie for all to be at the top of the agenda.
I believe it is better to find another solution, which might be acceptable to the majority Afghans and, which could also serve US (and NATO) interests. An international conference on Afghanistan, say a Bonn II conference, which overcomes the mistakes of the first Bonn Conference, which was organized after the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001, might be a better solution. It would be more legitimate than a contested election. For instance, Islamic countries such as Turkey, Egypt, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates could use their influence both on Pakistan and the Taliban to convince some of the Taliban leaders and other armed opposition groups to participate in a new international conference on Afghanistan, where the international community could agree on a new Afghan compact.
IA-Forum: Public opinion in NATO countries, especially the US, is turning against the war in Afghanistan. How do you view the presence of NATO and the international community in Afghanistan since 2001? How would you explain the rationale for blood and treasure being spent in Afghanistan to an average American citizen (or for that matter a German or a British citizen)?
Mr. Mir: First of all, I feel that American memory is quite short. Not long ago they commemorated the 9/11 attacks on the US soil. Those who had masterminded these heinous attacks are still alive and probably living in luxury villas in Pakistan. The US had a clear mission and international mandate, which was to defeat international terrorism, in the guise of al-Qaeda. However, the current political crisis in Afghanistan is taking the focus away from this crucial war.
Current US sacrifices both in terms of human life and treasure are worth in order to prevent another such attack on US soil or against US interests elsewhere in the world. Any military defeat of NATO against non-state actors, such as Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, would result in a tsunami wave that could destabilize so many other Islamic countries, where the US has vital interests.
IA-Forum: Moving past the election, there is a lot of discussion about corruption in the country. How would you assess the situation? Is the Taliban gaining strength partly because of concerns surrounding corruption under Mr. Karzai and various former warlords, who have now become provincial governors?
Mr. Mir: There is no doubt that the Taliban derives strength from weaknesses within the Afghan government. The Afghan government has never been able to fill the political vacuum left after the Taliban defeat in 2001. In addition, security, justice, and basic services never reached Afghans in the many remote villages in the country. I believe administrative corruption, massive unemployment, and absence of justice are key factors behind the Taliban's resurgence not only in the southern provinces, but also in some of the relatively stable provinces in the north.
NATO’s main difficulty does not stem from defeating the Taliban in military operations; the Alliance’s main difficulty lies in bringing justice and good governance to a population, which increasingly distrusts the Afghan government. Indeed, a dysfunctional and distrusted Afghan government serves as a promotional tool for the Taliban, in order to gain popular support and recruit more fighters.
IA-Forum: What should be done to improve the long term economic development prospects of Afghanistan? Some, like Mr. Ghani, have blamed the international community for wasting foreign aid money by employing ‘Western’ consultants. But given the corruption in various state institutions, would it be better if Afghan consultants managed the same projects? Do you think there needs to be an overhaul of how international aid and development projects are implemented in Afghanistan?
Mr. Mir: There is no doubt that the Afghan government and donor countries lacked a clear economic vision for Afghanistan. Most of the reconstruction and development efforts have been uncoordinated, which lead to a serious mismanagement of funds.
In one of my opinion article published in 2008 (In Need Of a Czar) I advocated for the position of a Development Czar in Afghanistan in order improve international coordination, speed up the pace of development, and create an economic vision for Afghanistan. However, until now most of very important development tasks were left to profit seeking private companies. According to a 2007 Oxfam report on the state of development funding in Afghanistan, less than 40% of aid money remained in Afghanistan, while 60% went back to the original donor countries. We need to reconsider the current economic development strategy in Afghanistan as it is indicated in the new US strategy for Afghanistan.
IA-Forum: What roles are Afghanistan’s neighbor’s playing? In the U.S., Afghanistan and Pakistan have become inextricably link now, with an Af-Pak strategy and the appointment of a singular special envoy for both countries – Richard Holbrooke. Is this is a positive development?
Mr. Mir: The US needs a regional consensus on Afghanistan. However, the US position is very weak in this part of the world. Even Pakistan, a very close ally of the US, has adopted hostile policies towards US presence in Afghanistan. Despite American financial and military support, Pakistan has never abandoned its support to the Taliban. Since, the Taliban and al-Qaeda leadership found safe haven in Pakistan, they have rebuilt training camps, and established recruiting and financial networks. Therefore the war on terror legally extends inside Pakistan's territory. I believe, in this context, that it is very important that the US coordinates its foreign policy and military strategy through a unique Afghanistan-Pakistan (Af-Pak) strategy.
IA-Forum: What role do you see Iran and India playing in Afghanistan and how does it fit in the larger regional context?
Mr. Mir: I believe both Iran and India have considerable economic interests in a stable Afghanistan. India needs to have access to fossil fuel reserves in Central Asia and Iran wants to have a land connection to China through Afghanistan.
In the beginning of this year, Secretary Clinton spoke about engaging Afghanistan's neighbors and regional countries in the process of stabilizing Afghanistan. However, this initiative never materialized because of the current political crisis in Afghanistan. Afghanistan is located in one of the most dynamic regions of the world, and could re-gain its traditional status as a trade corridor between South and Central Asia, as well as between China and Middle East. In fact, in any regional stabilization effort for Afghanistan, the US administration needs the backing of not only Iran and India but also of Russia and China, which have high economic and security stakes in a stable Afghanistan.
IA-Forum: Has civil society in Afghanistan been strengthened under Mr. Karzai?
Mr. Mir: Afghan civil society has developed in the past eight years due to an influx of aid money. It is a supply sided phenomenon due to the donors’ initiatives rather than a genuine demand from Afghan society itself (and the government has even less to do with it). The strength of our civil society is closely linked to the commitment of the international community, which has been increasing in the past eight years. However, I fear that the Afghan civil society will collapse once its foreign source of funding ceases; it is not self-reliant yet.
IA-Forum: How can civil society play a more constructive role in Afghanistan’s future development?
Mr. Mir: Afghanistan embraced democracy without developing institutions necessary for a functioning democracy (we saw that in the conduct of our recent elections). In any democracy, the role of civil society is tremendous in promoting democratic values, social justice, and human rights. This is particularly true in Afghanistan, where the bulk of our people are illiterate. Plus, when we lack national political parties, civil society has an even greater responsibility in promoting democracy and defending the interests of the general public.
For example, Afghanistan's youth have undergone close to 30 years of radicalization in the Islamic madrassas; we need to promote religious tolerance and democratic values throughout the country. This is only possible if we could have a robust civil society, which is able to fight radical views preached by well funded radical madrassas, by advancing from moderate religious views.
IA-Forum: What role do you see groups such as yours – Afghanistan Center for Research and Policy Studies – play to promote development in the country?
Mr. Mir: We have a number of different types of activities. We established the Afghanistan Center for Research and Policy Studies in order to provide Afghan input in the realm of policy debates in Afghanistan (which is needed and in short supply at present).
Aside producing our own analyses and reports on key economic and governance policies, we are also trying to promote liberalization and advance trade interests to jump-start the economy, within the Afghan Parliament and Provincial Councils, where Afghanistan's future leaders might emerge from. However, despite all of our efforts, we have little or no impact on decision making in Afghanistan, due to lack of transparency. In addition, our Afghan perspective is by donor agencies in Afghanistan as well.
IA-Forum: Finally, if you were asked by President Obama for a list of 5 policy suggestions that the US should follow in Afghanistan, what would they be?
Mr. Mir: First, I would say improve governance. This can be done by fighting corruption, nepotism, and reducing the influence of drug-lords and warlords in the Afghan government.
Second, increase the effectiveness of Afghan security forces and their numbers in order to reduce NATO's burden in this war. This policy is not a quick fix: it will require US and NATO commitment for military training and assistance for another decade.
Third, focus on providing justice, which means provide basic services – education, healthcare, access to basic nutrition – to the Afghan people (in addition to security) in order to regain their trust on the Afghan authority.
Fourth, have a serious policy shift towards Pakistan. The US can never defeat al-Qaeda, and the radical elements within the Taliban, as long as they have safe havens, training camps, recruiting and financial networks in Pakistan.
Fifth, do not listen to self declared experts on Afghanistan, who were partly responsible for misguided US policy in Afghanistan for the past 8 years, since 2001. Pay attention to Afghan perspectives and stay committed.
Mr. Haroun Mir has served as a special assistant to late Ahmad Shah Massoud, Afghanistan’s former Defense Minister from 1993-99. He traveled on behalf of late Massoud to Washington, Paris, and Bonn in order to brief Western governments on the situation in Afghanistan and also contributed to ending the Tajikistan Civil War. He currently is the co-founder and director of Afghanistan’s Center for Research and Policy Studies (ACRPS), and co-authored studies on Afghanistan’s economy. During the last several years he has worked as an independent consultant and analyst in Washington DC and in Kabul for various domestic and foreign institutions. He has an undergraduate degree in Physics from University of Paris VII in France and a graduate degree in Economics from George Mason University in Virginia, USA. Mr. Mir has published several analytical and opinion articles on the development of economic and political situation in Afghanistan through different international media outlet such as the International Herald Tribune, The Hindu Business Line, The Times of India, Asia Times Online, Central Asia Caucasus Institute Analyst, and many more.
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