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Chief Executive Officer, Afghanistan

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Issue: 63 Section: International News Geography: Canada Afghanistan Topics: elections, war

September 21, 2009

Chief Executive Officer, Afghanistan

Internationally sponsored elections reflect warlords’ power over Afghanistan

by Ryan Fletcher

William Crosbie, Canada's ambassador to Afghanistan, visits a polling station in Kabul. [cc 2.0] Photo: Canada in Afghanistan

KABUL—Shahla Ata is a strong woman on shaky foundations.

“I think that Afghanistan needs a tough president. I don’t see that toughness and seriousness in the men but I see it in myself,” Doctor Ata said at her office in south Kabul before the August 20 ballot. “In America Obama brought a big change. I want to bring such a revolution.”

Ata, whose support lay mainly in urbanized Kabul, “knew she did not have any chance of winning” Afghanistan’s second presidential election, said Kabul based analyst Walliullah Rahmani. Her dream of bringing a revolution to Afghanistan was beset on all sides with problems, as was the election, which was marred by widespread fraud, low voter turnout and violence.

Many believe the democratic experiment, seen as a yardstick for international progress in the country, was oxymoronic given that most power still lies in the hands of warlords and military commanders. As the challenges of incorporating a democratic system into an archaic feudal society become increasingly obvious, plans are emerging for a chief executive position that could allow a civil administration more control.

Most of the presidential candidates were not taking part to win: out of 41, only three were serious contenders: incumbent Hamid Karzai, renowned World Bank economist Ashraf Ghani, and former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah.

A man works during election day in Kandahar. [cc 2.0] Photo: Canada in Afghanistan

“Apart from the main contenders, all the candidates have other motives. They are either trying to gain reputations or gain votes in constituencies that will help them bargain for concessions and positions of power later on,” said Sulaiman Aeyamat from Afghanistan’s Centre for Research and Policy Studies, during the run up to the election.

The large number of candidates reflects a country divided along tribal, ethnic, and religious lines. Many villages and communities voted in blocks under the direction of village elders, local power brokers, and religious leaders. The latter focused their support on those with the most clout. In a failing state such as Afghanistan, those who control arms and men direct the votes.

This is why Karzai recruited warlords such as Muhammed Fahim, who wields considerable influence over the Tajiks in Afghanistan. Fahim was going to run against Karzai but switched sides when he was offered the vice-presidential ticket. Aeyamat expected a number of the candidates to drop out and direct their supporters to vote for one of the main contenders, in return for political favors. Ten candidates stood down before the end of the election.

It looks as if Karzai benefited most from such deals. He also benefited from maintaining good relations with influential powerbrokers not involved in the political race, such as the infamous Uzbek warlord Abdul Dostum. Karzai’s main presidential rivals and international observers are currently lambasting him, alleging corruption. Thousands of votes are being recounted or thrown out.

Politician and women’s activist Massouda Jalal made an historic attempt to become Afghanistan’s first female president in 2005. She said the only good thing about the elections is the opportunity to show people how democracy is supposed to work.

“It is has been eight years [since the fall of the Taliban], and we don’t have rule of law in the country,” Jalal said at her home in Kabul in July. “The strong candidates belong to the previous commandership system. They will flush that system with money and they will be successful. It will all continue for another five years.”

Opinions differ as to whether a country looking for peace and development is helped by military figures, left over from Afghanistan’s myriad wars, dominating civil government.

“Military commanders are usually multi-talented. A military person can work as a police commander; he can be a teacher or a governor. I don’t see any problem with that. But a civilian person cannot be a military commander,” said former presidential candidate Abdul Salem Rocketi.

A former high-level Taliban commander turned M.P., Rocketi gained the moniker for his prowess with RPGs during the Soviet occupation. He was one of many candidates with a military background expected to gain from the election.

Gholam Guord Jailani, former president of the Afghan Olympic committee, doesn’t share Rocketi’s view. He said that since the appointment of General Mohammed Zaher Aghbar to head of the committee decisions have been made differently.

“Instead of someone with a sporting background, we have a person with a military background. He is making decisions independently and ideas are not being shared. The committee is losing its reputation,” said Jailani.

At the Tourism Ministry, a clerk, who did not wish to be named, was also critical of military figures owing their roles to patronage.

“During the wartime they had the guns, now they have the money. I spent five years at university, for what?” he said with tears in his eyes. “[My superior] comes in when he wants and does not do his job properly. I can do the job better than him, but I cannot argue because of his position.”

There is growing concern both in Afghanistan and abroad about the efficacy of an “elected” Kabul administration influenced by military commanders. This has led to increasing reports of a chief executive position being created within the government. The position would be similar to that of a corporate CEO.

The unelected seat would allow the US and Afghanistan to bypass the web of allegiances and power sharing that causes so many of the problems faced by the US and Afghan governments.

A draft report obtained by Kabul’s 8am paper in mid-June said the holder would have the power to “monitor the activities of ministers” involved with defense, foreign policy, counter terrorism, finance, and security. He would also have the power to propose “dismissing, or firing or changing of any official.”

In May, the New York Times reported that senior unnamed US and Afghan officials had revealed that previous US Ambassador to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, was in talks with Hamid Karzai about taking up the role. Both Khalilzad and the Karzai administration have denied discussing the controversial position, which would increase US control over the government in the long term.

Former World Bank executive Ashraf Ghani has been offered the position repeatedly. He has refused saying it was “not workable” in a democratic system, and decided instead to run against Karzai. The offer, however, is still being discussed between Karzai and Ghani, with the Americans’ encouragement.

For Massouda Jalal, the ethical implications of creating an independent political position, are outweighed by the potential to affect the pervasive alliances of the still strong military government.

“The chief executive position is a good idea”, she said. “There have been many military men given support in the government [since the fall of the Taliban], why not let someone else have a chance? We are in the primary stage of government building and it will allow experts to strengthen the leadership.”

Ryan Fletcher is a freelance journalist based in England. He recently traveled to Afghanistan.

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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