Bring Down the Government; They Don’t, They Don’t Speak for Us

by Joshua Foust on 9/16/2009 · 23 comments

Ajmal Samadi is talking a lot of sense in RFE/RL:

In order to lift Afghanistan from its current political crisis and most effectively address the growing accusations of election fraud, the international community should pressure Karzai to transfer power to a transitional administration that would run the government until the election controversy is resolved and a new president is sworn in…

But ironically, in addition to helping legitimize a tainted election, a well-designed transitional authority could help overcome the structural deficiencies in the Bonn arrangements that have endangered Afghanistan’s development.

For instance, the National Assembly – which has been effectively marginalized in recent years – can play a pivotal role in authorizing and organizing an emergency transitional administration in line with Afghan law. That transitional authority should be broad-based and comprehensive, including all players in the country’s political process.

Instituting a transitional authority would also go a long way toward convincing the Afghan people that the international community supports democracy in Afghanistan rather than any particular individual leaders.

Finally, doing so would send a powerful signal to Karzai that could change his behavior if he is confirmed as the winner of the election.

Bingo. Much of the commentary surrounding the election controversy in Afghanistan has involved things like Richard Holbrooke leaking allegations of fraud to undermine Karzai’s reelection prospects. It’s a ridiculous attempt at interventionism; Samadi’s solution takes the idea and actually gives it teeth and real enforcing power.

In addition, strengthening the national assembly—getting a new constitution and making Afghanistan more parliamentarian than Presidential—would be a much better fit for both its traditional models of governance and modern institutions.

Then again, Samadi doesn’t work at an influential DC Think Tank obsessed with how many American troops remain in the country. So this proposal will go nowhere. But it remains a good idea regardless.

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– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Bernard Finel September 16, 2009 at 9:30 am

Is there strong enough leadership in the National Assembly to make this work?

Joshua Foust September 16, 2009 at 9:34 am

Define “strong.” There are many ‘reformed’ warlord types who are capable of leading, including two ex-Presidents of the country. But they don’t exactly have inspiring records.

But that doesn’t make it a bad idea. Having a strong executive has been a disaster. In a legislature, there’s far more accountability with logrolling and whatnot, and that also allows a forum for different factions and demographics to negotiate with each other. It certainly can’t be any worse than what we have now.

Brian September 16, 2009 at 9:40 am

Orrrr we could actually look at the letter of the international law, and call a spade a spade and an occupation an occupation.

Perhaps President Obama needs to recognize that we did break it and we did buy it and its time to start acting that way. The installment of the Karzai government has been problematic from Day One. Although the UN announcing that it is no longer an “occupation” does mean, under International Law that there is no longer an “occupation” in Afghanistan, HOWEVER, its specious to think that a country which has no effective security forces, no effective resource distribution, no effective educational system, and no effective political system, and is dependent on 10s of thousands of foreign troops is anything other than an occupied territory.

Just because President Bush et al screwed up and pressed to get out of Afghanistan immediately and turn it over to a “puppet administration” doesn’t mean it was the right thing to do.

So where do we go from here? We can’t exactly re-declare an occupation of the country, since the UN currently recognizes the Karzai government. We could engage in a Diem-style assassination plot, but really, do we think that worked out well in Vietnam??

Samadi is right, the only way to deal with the situation now has been clearly articulated before, in different countries, perhaps its time to follow the lead of Argentinian women and say “Que se vayan todos!”(they all must go!)

Such a process would have certainly helped the various illegitimate Iraqi administrations had it been implemented sooner, the ability for the people to denounce all candidates and start again would be huge. If we can’t get this right I’m afraid the best we can hope for is an Afghanistan with tenuous political detente that could go wrong at any misfire of a pistol or mispeak of a politician.

AG September 16, 2009 at 9:44 am

“It certainly can’t be any worse than what we have now”–then why bother? I am not sure whether throwing the country into another political crisis will necessarily improve anything for the better. Wasn’t the Loya Jirga exactly this “broad-based and comprehensive, including all players in the country’s political process,” and look what it gave us!

Bernard Finel September 16, 2009 at 9:52 am

>>Perhaps President Obama needs to recognize that we did break it and we did buy it and its time to start acting that way.<<

Does that mean we "own it" forever? Is there any way to discharge our obligations? Are there ANY limits to this argument?

Brian September 16, 2009 at 10:13 am


Of course the answers to your question should be obvious:

1. we walk away, and recognize that we really messed up and do our best to support any legitimate authority that we see arising, and if necessary push it towards a more tolerant world-view.(i’m not necessarily opposed to this, although i think its the worse of the options, at the end of the day i’m not sure we can fix the situation on the ground ourselves or with our NATO allies, it may just take a long time). On the other hand, I think we would also need to enforce an arms embargo so that no regional powers are meddling, which is going to be difficult to say the least.

2. the international community works with a transitional government to stand up a nation that is capable of all those things i enumerated: its own security, an educational system, protecting borders, distributing resources, and a functioning political system.

Bernard Finel September 16, 2009 at 12:42 pm

They must be so obvious that I don’t understand them even after your response.

I still don’t understand at what point American taxpayers and soldiers are off the hook. Is it only once Afghanistan is “fixed”? What if it… um… never is?

Or another way, in ANOTHER 10 years, would it still be possible to make the “you broke it you bought it” argument? 20 years? Is there any statute of limitations?

Spencer Ackerm/n September 16, 2009 at 10:24 am

Doesn’t this assume a can opener? With Eide playing down the election fraud, how does a coalition coalesce for transitional administration, and where’s the appetite either within the international community for sponsoring it; or within the assembly for creating it?

Joshua Foust September 16, 2009 at 10:27 am

Not really. Kai Eide was just releasing doves on ToloTV; I don’t think he’s a very reliable indicator of the prospects for a coalition. And what do you mean by that anyway?

And there is PLENTY of hunger within the two Jirgas for a new form of government with them in charge. I think the harder part will be limiting their power.

Keith September 16, 2009 at 11:33 am


I’m asking these questions honestly (that is to say, without snark)–Is there really “PLENTY of hunger” in the Jirgas for Government reform? Are they/would they be more legitimate than another Karzai administration?

My own experience in Afghanistan (anecdotal, obviously) led me to believe that the Jirgas were full of scoundrals, criminals, and drug dealers. The Afghans I worked with seemed to have little regard for the Jirga. (It has been a few years since I have been to Afghanistan though.)

M Shannon September 16, 2009 at 10:39 am

The best worst solution is to allow Karzai to win and pay Abdullah off. If we force a run off and Karzai wins we are in the same place with the same crew. If we force a run off and voting in the south and east is low enough (apathy, Taliban intimidation) Abdullah might win. Is an election with 3% turnout in Pashtun areas legitimate? Then what?

If we spend weeks or months deciding how much Karzai’s gang cheated by it’ll be winter and the whole mess will slide right into the spring. What is our legal basis to do any of this? All the while with the Taliban pointing out how the corruption and futility of western democracy.

Brian September 16, 2009 at 10:48 am

“Our” legal basis is to poll the Afghan people about what they actually want-on the other hand, maybe that results in a divided state, are we ready for that? I don’t think it will, but nor am I sure “we” are ready for that. (In this case I use “our” to refer to the international community as a whole, including Afghanistan, etc I use “we” to refer to the NATO/ISAF alliance, ie western countries too busy exoticizing Afghanistan to come up with reasonable policies.

If you look at recent history there may be little reason for the Afghan populace to trust us-or the United Nations, given Mr. Eide’s flippant, dangerous, and WRONG assessment of the election just after its closure-and ongoing. This may be the most difficult part, figuring out how to support a transitional coalition.

But if President Obama walks away from the Karzai administration, I certainly find it believable that he can walk into the arms of a ready and willing Afghan assembly.

On the other hand, the unlikely nature of such a scenario probably makes much of this discussion moot. September 16, 2009 at 12:35 pm

Looky looky who else is suggesting this kind of idea? Emphasis mine…
“Afghanistan’s election paralysis shows no sign of ending. The presidential election on August 20 was marked by heavy fraud and widespread manipulation. Nearly a month after the first round of voting, the independent Election Complaints Commission – tasked with investigating the irregularities – has ordered a partial recount and audit, of 2500 polling stations. ICOS believes an interim government is the only workable alternative, with international auditors appointed to enforce government accountability in the interim period.

Colin Cookman September 16, 2009 at 1:19 pm

Well, to be fair, Dan Markey does work at a Washington DC think tank, and he is making this argument. Which is not to say it’ll go anywhere.

Transitionland September 16, 2009 at 10:32 pm

It’s not like Afghanistan lacks reformers. Just look at Ramazan Bashardost’s 3rd place finish in the election. 3rd, place, who cares? you ask.

3rd place after running a grassroots campaign out of a tent and a rusty, 20 year old Suzuki. With no security, Bashardost traveled to something like 24 provinces. He won votes, possibly as much as 15% of the total, from every ethnic group. That’s nothing to sneeze at.

Yet, it’s people like Bashardost who the international community has actively worked to sideline, dismissing them as “populists” (which is, apparently, the worst thing an Afghan politician can be) and aberrations. This appalling strategy has played out most visibly in the parliament –to predictable results. The parliament is held in low regard, and the reformists within it are a grouchy, frustrated bunch, and for good reason: they’ve been thwarted from forming political parties by the usual suspects abusing the poor wording of the Law on Political Parties, and they have been excluded from committee leadership positions in all of the security and justice committees.

So, yeah…the parliament isn’t much less of a mess than anything else. There are lots of sensible, do-able suggestions floating about for how to fix it, but the political will to implement them is severely lacking.

How do we empower the reformers *now*? That’s the question at the forefront of my mind these days.

AG September 17, 2009 at 11:10 am

I agree with you on most points. But we do have to admit that it gets a bit tricky with the reformers too. Bashardost’s security policy was setting up a team of crack commandos that will be deployed to deadly ends whenever the Iranian and Pakistani governments offend an Afghan. It plays with the base, but can you blame someone for thinking twice about a proposition like that?

Transitionland September 17, 2009 at 3:33 pm

I heard about that, and it sounds a bit…off, to say the least.

However, it’s not like other MPs haven’t proposed, and even pushed through, some pretty weird, counterproductive legislation. Or that other public figures don’t have…interesting ideas for how to fix Afghanistan’s security problems.

Even if some of Bashardost’s ideas are pure crackpottery, a lot of them are pretty sensible.

b September 17, 2009 at 3:12 am

So the idea is to get legitimacy by overthrowing the Afghan government with outside occupation forces and then to install some other kind of “legitimate” government.

If someone from the outside would do that in your country how much “legitimacy” would such a government have with you?

David M September 17, 2009 at 10:29 am

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 09/17/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

Toryalay Shirzay September 17, 2009 at 8:32 pm

Transitionland got it right;it’s high time the reformists are empowered in Afghanistan and requiring the current regime headed by Karzai to step aside until election results are validated by the UN is the most acceptable way to go for most Afghans except the Karzai cronies.The time is right to get rid of corrupt Afghan gov. officials and give the reformists who in considerable numbers a chance to prove themselves.If the US,NATO, and UN don’t stop this fraudulent election from gaining legitimacy, then we will all lose including the Afghan people and the winners will be islamic fascists and their supporters.

M Shannon September 17, 2009 at 10:25 pm

A coup d’etat (that’s what “letting” the reformers have a go would require) would lead to a fiasco. If we were lucky insurgent/ anti-NATO forces would only double.

Transitionland September 18, 2009 at 1:14 am

I’m in NO WAY suggesting a coup. Let me clear that up. I think we can help reformists in “soft” ways –by actually paying attention to them and treating them like important players in the political process, by working to create a party system, by not spending so much time feting and funding the corrupt holdovers, by pushing for a renewal of the AIHRC’s transitional justice mandate before it expires in December, by providing much more technical and security assistance to the IEC in the run up to the 2010 parliamentary elections, by providing better technical assistance to the civil service commission so it can actually carry out its mandate, etc.

So, not a coup.

Lori-ellen Ivers September 18, 2009 at 6:38 am

I have just finished reading Ajmal Samadi’ piece and am heartened by his thoughts. It is the first time since 9/11 that I have heard a reasonable,rational thought outside of war. I was of the belief that many more troops were needed to go in and find Bin Laden and this still may be so, but have always believed that we also needed someone to go in at grass roots level helping with the implementation of a soundly formed government. As was said, not a Presidential election. Somewhere, somehow, we have to instill some trust with the Afghanistan people. One thing I don’t understand though,why is it that everyone is always looking for answers from only the American government. Last time I looked, it wasn’t only the States being targeted.
Can anyone fill me in on what is being done for the poor people of this country? Surely they still need much more help to not only rebuild but for the basics of ongoing life during all the fighting. I haven’t heard much since the news is being monopolized by economic issues in most other countries.

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