By Javid Ahmad, Special to CNN
Javid Ahmad, a native of Kabul, is a program coordinator with the Asia Program of the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Washington, D.C. The views expressed are his own.
Recent events have underscored the extent to which Afghanistan’s inept leadership undermines the country’s nascent administrative capabilities. Last week, two of President Hamid Karzai’s most powerful cabinet colleagues – Defense Minister Rahim Wardak and Interior Minister Bismillah Khan Mohammadi – lost no-confidence motions in the Afghan parliament and were disqualified from holding office due to their perceived inaction over a spate of violence. Bismillah Khan was also reportedly accused of carving out his own ethnic Tajik fiefdom within the Afghan police force and alienating and marginalizing Pashtun officials working under him.
As Karzai struggled to find replacements for those two, the Afghan television network Tolo released bank statements purportedly belonging to Finance Minister Omar Zakhilwal, which suggested more than $1 million in deposits (keep in mind that Afghan cabinet ministers receive an average monthly salary of $3,500). Zakhilwal’s claims that he was remunerated for his work as consultant before joining the government in 2005 ring hollow – nongovernmental organizations and foreign government entities operating in Afghanistan don’t pay that lavishly. More importantly, all of the deposits coincided with Zakhilwal’s time in the Afghan government as finance minister and as the financial chief of President Karzai’s reelection campaign.
All three ministers have denied the charges, which have yet to be proven, although Wardak has resigned and was subsequently appointed by Karzai as his senior military advisor. The other two ministers, meanwhile, are clinging to what’s left of their legitimacy. In Kabul, these episodes have undeniably undermined the legitimacy of Karzai’s government and seem to have further emboldened opposition groups. In Washington and elsewhere, these developments will likely buttress the views of those who support an accelerated troop drawdown and reduction in funding for the Afghan mission. In the run up to the U.S. election, such steps may also seem appealing to American voters. But they would actually only intensify the challenges facing the United States and its allies in Afghanistan.
While these episodes aren’t likely to drag on for long, the situation still highlights some deeper problems with Afghan politics. While it’s not the first time that Kabul has been unable to find political replacements without resorting to ethnic politics, the fallout from these events reveal the stark absence of a competent Afghan civil service. The country’s indigenous civil services are characterized by corruption, political patronage and nepotism, leaving them incapable of delivering basic services to the Afghan people. There’s a shortage of capability and capacity – over the past decade, foreign NGOs provided basic services in the absence of preexisting institutions – and no real merit-based pay and grading review system. Too often, foreign NGOs, contractors, and subcontractors funded individuals within certain ministries, through government budgets and via opaque processes, who in turn promoted their interests from within. In addition, many well-educated Afghans are stationed in embassies abroad, while hundreds of key positions in Kabul and the provinces are filled through patronage networks. There’s also been little involvement from those within Afghan civil society, which has developed at about the same pace as the Afghan government.
Regrettably, judging from Afghanistan’s current trajectory, the challenges presented by such questionable practices have the potential to cause far-reaching turmoil. Yet this latest political crisis in Kabul – triggered by parliamentary oversight and media activism – suggests that the political landscape may actually be starting to change. While ordinary Afghans currently have no say in the appointments of ministers and other officials, the public is clearly clamoring for an alternative to the unholy alliance of corrupt officials, warlords, and drug kingpins.
Of course, Washington’s poor handling of Afghanistan’s bureaucratic development after eleven years of war are also partly to blame for the current lack of capacity. But the United States could still invest in future generations, helping to turn young Afghans into capable technocrats and civil servants and bringing new, dynamic, educated, and more impartial young leaders into the political sphere. This would be best done through large-scale investments in education, citizen and leadership training, and an exposure to the work of Western institutions through foreign visits. If the United States’ goals are to be achieved in Afghanistan, the country’s civil services – and not just its security forces – must be properly trained and equipped to face the challenges ahead.