The international community generously provided $224 million to help Afghanistan hold a democratic presidential election this summer. But it now appears those funds were wasted on a fraudulent project whose results have been contested by many Afghans and international observers.
The only person who seems satisfied with the way the process is playing out so far is incumbent President Hamid Karzai.
Unfortunately, the election fiasco is part of a larger trend. Over the past few years under Karzai, Afghanistan has fallen from the middle of the pack in terms of corruption to one of the most corrupt states on Transparency International’s global corruption index.
Opium production and trafficking have increased, and senior government officials have been accused of involvement. Security has decreased and organized crime is on the rise. A plan for the implementation of transitional justice was unceremoniously dumped. Warlords and criminals have returned to the highest echelons of power.
But these and other examples of backsliding in Afghanistan were ignored by the country’s unwavering international supporters. As a result, Afghanistan is in danger of following the pattern observed so often in many African and Asian countries, where billions of dollars in assistance disappear because of corruption and bad governance while poverty, illiteracy, disease, and underdevelopment remain unchecked.
Many liberal-minded observers tend to oppose donors when they place conditions on assistance, arguing that doing so undermines sovereignty and promotes “colonial interventionism.” But is this academic term really relevant in Afghanistan, where the entire army and police force are on the U.S. payroll? Would Karzai remain president for long if international troops withdrew from the country?
On the other hand, if donors had attached stringent democratic-development and transparency conditions to their election funding, the process could have been sufficiently safeguarded to produce a presentable result. Given the massive international military, financial, political, and technical support for Afghanistan, the people had every right to expect at least a minimally acceptable electoral process.
Now, as more and more evidence of vote-rigging during the election emerges, it seems evident that the huge UN industry in Afghanistan has failed to deliver on its promise – stated in a UNDP document entitled “Enhancing Legal And Electoral Capacity For Tomorrow” (ELECT) – to organize the vote “with minimal disruption and controversy.”
In the eight years since the fall of the Taliban, UN agencies have spent billions on “capacity building” in Afghanistan. Now, the combined budgets of the 15 UN agencies working in Afghanistan are double the $2 billion budget of the Afghan government. And half of UN spending goes to the salaries of over 2,000 foreign staff and maintaining a fleet of armored vehicles and luxury aircraft. Little local Afghan expertise -- perhaps none at all -- is driving the UN enterprise in Afghanistan.
The U.S. State Department has conceded that determining the final results of the tainted Afghan election could take several months because the Election Complaints Commission must rule on more than 2,700 electoral complaints, over 700 of which are considered “serious.”
This delay comes at a critical juncture, with the country mired in a political and security crisis. Parliament and opposition groups already challenged a unilateral Supreme Court decision to extend Karzai’s mandate from March until August. Given the widespread and credible allegations of the use of state resources to commit election fraud, it will be very difficult for Karzai to cobble together another extension that would allow him to remain in power until final election results are certified.
But even if he does so, it will do nothing to increase public confidence in the election results. The best way for Karzai to respond to the flood of accusations that he abused his office and misused state resources to secure his own reelection would be for him to recuse himself from the decision-making process.
A New Transitional Power
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.
Critics may respond that installing a transitional administration would look like a return to December 2001. Doing so could have the appearance of a retreat that could cause people to question whether all the economic, political, military, and human costs incurred in stabilizing Afghanistan over the last eight years were for naught.
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. Over the past few months, Karzai has shocked and disappointed many observers inside and outside Afghanistan with decisions such as cutting deals with warlords and criminals or his release of jailed drug traffickers. It is time that President Karzai understood that the support of the international community is not unconditional.
Ajmal Samadi is director of the Kabul-based Afghanistan Rights Monitor, an independent rights watchdog. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.