The Crucibles and Dilemmas of US State Building in Afghanistan


Direct Efforts to Improve Governance — Pressuring the National Government and Going Local

Even to the extent that combating corruption in Afghanistan has at times been determined to be a key objective of the U.S. government and the international community, the international community has struggled to devise effective mechanisms to accomplish the objective.

Believing that the Bush Administration let President Karzai off the hook on corruption and poor government performance, the Obama administration arrived at the White House with a determination to pressure Karzai into changing his behavior or marginalizing him so that he would not be reelected in the 2010 presidential elections. But the pressure did not pay off: President Karzai still won the election through fraud and by coopting various powerbrokers and promising them government appointments or behind-the-scenes influence. Nor did he change his behavior and propensity to tolerate corruption, despite overt promises to the contrary.

Subsequent public criticism from the United States also failed to increase Karzai’s motivation to tackle corruption and improve governance. Nor did it succeed in getting Karzai to remove the most problematic powerbrokers and government officials from positions of influence. Having been conditioned both by his early experiences of observing tribal politics in Kandahar and by the internationals’ early reluctance to take on the warlords, President Karzai has chosen instead to shuffle the problematic powerbrokers around Afghanistan’s various ministries and provinces.

Instead of improving governance and satisfying Washington’s demand, the Afghan president has become deeply antagonistic toward and distrustful of the United States while feeling all the more beholden to various Afghan powerbrokers. Rather than encouraging Karzai to become a more reliable partner of the international community, the overt pressure from Washington has increased his paranoia, his reliance on a progressively smaller clique of advisors, mainly his immediate family, and his fundamental distrust of his international partners. A subsequent softer approach to Karzai adopted by Washington in the spring of 2010 did not succeed in assuaging his distrust of the internationals while creating the impression that the international community was caving into Karzai’s antics.

Indeed, a fundamental discrepancy in mutual understanding of what fostering good governance means continues to exist between the international community and President Karzai. Washington and the internationals define good governance as building effective and corruption-free institutions and bureaucracies. President Karzai, however, focuses on the weakness of the central state, not its lack of accountability, and defines improving governance as expanding and deepening the Kandahari Durrani power structures and his personal network while infusing those two endeavors with a national image.

Thus instead of caving to Western pressure, the Arg Palace (the presidential seat in Kabul) has responded with various counterstrategies. These have included: blaming others for Afghanistan problems, including international observers and international members of the Electoral Complaints Election for perpetrating fraud in the presidential elections; attacking the international community and repeating various anti-foreigner conspiracy theories believed by the Afghans; threatening actions directly contradictory to the war effort, such as suggesting that he would join the Taliban if the foreigners continued to put pressure on him, suggesting that in a military conflict between the United States and Pakistan, Afghanistan would side with Pakistan, or shutting down private security companies on which the international community has been dependent for logistics and security; and seeking to create divisions within the international community while and courting new friends, such as Russia and Iran.

Frustration with Karzai and a lack of progress in pressuring Kabul to improve governance resulted in the internationals’ embrace of a “going local” approach to governance. Instead of seeking to work through the central government, the international community came to focus on local officials and traditional local governance mechanisms, such as shuras (local councils of tribal elders). Given Afghanistan’s traditionally weak center and highly decentralized power arrangements, such a policy made sense. Among the mechanisms created under this new approach were the Independent Directorate for Local Governance (IDLG), which soon became coopted by Kabul and run by a Karzai loyalist, Jelani Popal, and the Afghan Social Outreach Program (ASOP) that has sought to generate village-level and district-level governance, including in highly insecure areas, by paying local tribal elders to form shuras. The hope was that the ASOP structures could also be used more directly in the counterinsurgency effort. A corollary to going local has been an effort to rapidly dispatch district officials and local representatives of line ministries to areas cleared from insurgents through the military surge.

Nonetheless, the same deficiencies that plagued local administration prior to the military surge often continue to plague it after the surge: Local officials are still completely dependent on Kabul for their budgets in the highly centralized system that Afghanistan adopted in 2004 (even though President Karzai is often disparaged as a weak mayor of Kabul). Many local officials – be they ex-patriots parachuted to Afghanistan from abroad or local Afghans – also often have little knowledge of local conditions, limited willingness to spend time in the violent districts, and limited acceptability to local communities or powerbrokers.

The experience of Kandahar’s governor Tooryalai Wesa is just one of many examples: Wesa was brought back to Kandahar from Canada, but Kandahar’s powerbrokers, including Ahmed Wali Karzai, continued to maintain authority and ran circles around the governor. Other local officials, even while liked and embraced by the international community, such as Abdul Jabar, Arghandab’s district governor in 2010 before he was killed, subsequently turned out to be deeply corrupt, involved in criminal activities, such as skimming large sums of money from foreign aid, and even in cahoots with the Taliban.

In areas of improved security and strong international supervision, the quality of local district governors, police chiefs, and line ministry representatives has been improving. But such improvements are often highly dependent on particular individuals. The lack of institutionalization and the persisting incentive structures that privilege short-term personal gains over long-term investments in the development of quality institutions make any such improvements in governance highly vulnerable to Taliban assassinations of the good local leaders or to power-plays by other Afghan powerbrokers who are threatened by good local officials.

Many of the shuras embraced by the international community have not accurately and equitably represented local communities either. They too have often lacked the capacity to address governance problems and have been dominated behind the scenes by problematic powerbrokers. Rather, just like district government officials, the shuras need to be constantly supervised by the internationals to ensure that they fully reflect the various factions and voices of the community. But the influence of powerbrokers as well as Taliban assassinations of tribal elders often discourage such broad representation. Some of the shuras created under ASOP, for example, failed to perform altogether and only served as a way for local strongmen to extract money from the international community.

Even local leaders who have performed well have faced great challenges. The international community has attempted to reward such well-performing local leaders by channeling money and influence through them. But as the tensions between President Karzai and the international community escalated during the Obama administration, such direct international endorsement has at times become a kiss of death for the local officials, causing President Karzai to see them as a threat and to attempt to marginalize them or remove them from office.

Perhaps the most successful model of local governance in Afghanistan has been the so-called community development councils (CDCs) established under the auspices of the National Solidarity Program (NSP). Inspired by a similar program in Indonesia, the CDCs were instituted in Afghanistan in the early part of the decade by then Minister-of-Finance Ashraf Ghani. Designed to distribute small grants to village-level communities, the program has required participation of the entire community in decisions regarding development projects and their execution as well as the local community’s contribution of its own resources to the projects.

Yet the CDCs too have faced challenges and limitations. One of the reasons they escaped the corruption and rent-seeking problems that have plagued larger aid programs and contracts has been that the sums transferred to the CDCs have been relatively small. Consequently, many powerbrokers have not bothered to muscle onto the projects. Yet if such administration and policy designs were to be scaled up, they might well lose some of the representation, oversight, and joint community responsibility and could attract detrimental attention from rapacious powerbrokers. Already, insecurity has jeopardized some of the CDCs, with the Taliban demanding a cut from the CDC funds in areas of strong Taliban presence, such as Ghazni province. But these “taxes” to the Taliban shrank some of the resources to the point that the CDC programs could not be implemented. When approached for supplemental funds, the central government has mostly insisted that the local community either expel the Taliban, provide intelligence on it, or dip into its own pockets to take care of the financial shortfall. The CDCs representatives refused to undertake the anti-Taliban measures and maintained that since it was the responsibility of the government to defeat the Taliban and provide security, Kabul should pay for the Taliban tax.

Moreover, many of the governance and economic development problems, such as regional water managements or electrification, require decision-making and coordination at cross-provincial levels and simply cannot be addressed locally.

Thus, although the focus on local governance is appropriate because it is organic to Afghanistan’s traditional political arrangements and is the way most Afghans experience the government, it can only supplement national governance, not plaster over governance deficiencies of the central state.


  1. This is an excellent meta survey with good analysis. It is particularly valuable to those considering policy implications in development.

    The anti-corruption prescription from donors is often tinged with bias. For examplem there seems to be an emphasis on enforcement before capacity building and with little understanding of incentives.

    Part of your analysis, though, seems to jump to conclusions. Your statement about off-budget as “not necessarily in a less corrupt manner” is most likely factually incorrect. Off-budget funding is almost certainly more corrupt than on-budget. On-budget execution through the Ministry of Finance uses automated budget & commitment controls to prevent many forms of corruption. Transactions are fully auditable.There is additional oversight through the mult-donor trust fund. Reports from the govrnment system meet international public sector accounting standards. The latest Public Expenditure and Financial Accountability (PEFA) assessment was positive. Capacity building has enabled the Treasury to roll-out software and training to all regions in the country. Unlike off-budget, the on-budget funds avoid the quick transfer to cash. It’s cash that makes aid fungible and easily used for corrupt purposes. Of course, this will not eliminate corruption, but it makes corruption orders of magnitude harder. And, much easier to expose.

  2. On page 4, there is mention of a proposal for CDCs to exercise oversight of ALP. Does anyone know of a reference for that? I have read every assessment of NSP and every research paper mentioning NSP that I have been able to find over the past 2 years. I do not recall ever reading a proposal for CDCs to be used in that capacity. I would like to read about that in greater detail.

    • @TJM The proposal for CDCs to exercise oversight over the ALP came out of private meetings the author had with ISAF and USG officials. Unfortunately, no referencing note is available to follow up with it.

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