Barnett R. Rubin, a well-known expert on Afghanistan, says that despite a worsening security situation recently, the Afghan people “are really eager to vote and there will be a large turnout” in that country’s parliamentary elections Sunday.
“That means people in Afghanistan want to have a government that is not run by armed men and is accountable to them,” Rubin says. “It does not mean they will have that after they vote. That is, they’re very enthusiastic for participating, but they’re also quite skeptical as to what the results will be. So there’s a lot more work to be done afterwards.”
Rubin is director of studies and senior fellow at the Center for International Cooperation, New York University. From 1994 to 2000, he was director of the Center for Preventive Action and director of peace and conflict studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
He was interviewed on September 16, 2005 by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org.
You were in Afghanistan this summer and you’ve been following events in there for a long time. Can you discuss the parliamentary elections, which are going to take place Sunday? Is this the first time Afghans have ever had such an election?
Actually, Afghanistan had three parliamentary elections during the 1960s and 1970s, where there was universal adult suffrage under a constitution referred to as “New Democracy.” This constitution was used as the interim legal framework until the passage of the new constitution in 2004. But they’ve never before had a parliament that has the extensive powers integrated into a more or less democratic constitution, which they have now.
How important are these elections?
The elections are extremely important but they don’t make Afghanistan into a democracy. First of all, the elections constitute the final stage of the implementation of the UN-mediated agreement [called the Bonn agreement] that put together the current political structures in Afghanistan. This included a transition from an unrepresentative interim government to the fully elected government that we have now.
And that means with these elections, with the formation of the national assembly after the elections—thirty days after the formation of a new supreme court—the basic institutions will be formed, and the current multilateral international framework for engaging with Afghanistan will come to an end.
And that is why the United Nations, the Afghan government, the United States and other donor governments are working to develop what they are calling a “post-Bonn framework” for international involvement with Afghanistan. And that post-Bonn framework will be presented to an international conference in London at the end of January. That will occur at the same time the Afghan government presents its Afghan National Development Strategy, because the two will be closely linked. The post-Bonn framework will essentially be support for the Afghan National Development Strategy, as well as support for regional cooperation around Afghanistan, security guarantees, and other sorts of political guarantees for the stability of the region.
That’s a big list of things coming up. When you say “post-Bonn,” that means the meeting that took place at the end of 2001?
It took place from November 26 through December 5, 2001, after Kabul had fallen from Taliban control. It was called the “UN Talks on Afghanistan,” and it took place outside Bonn, Germany. The agreement that was signed there, though it has a much longer formal title, is generally known as the Bonn Agreement, and covers a period of about three and half years. It had stages, starting with an unrepresentative interim administration, leading to an emergencyloya jirga[grand council], to a broadening of that government and indirect elections of a president for a transitional administration. It continued through the appointment of a constitutional commission, the adoption of a new constitution, and then the holding of elections for a fully representative government. The system of government they adopted in the constitution required elections both for the presidency and also for a bicameral parliament. These elections currently are not only for the lower house of the parliament, but also for provincial councils, and the provincial councils will indirectly elect part of the upper house of parliament.
There’s been a lot of press attention paid to terrorism and threats to voters and candidates. What is your sense of the general security situation?
Afghanistan is a country where the government is extremely weak. There are a lot of weapons. There are people based in the country and also outside the country, particularly in Pakistan, who are trying to overthrow or destabilize the current system.
And, in most of the country there is no rule of law and power is controlled by various armed groups. Now, in many ways, the situation is much better than it was three and a half years ago, but this is not something that can be changed in a short period of time. Afghanistan is going through a period of political change, and that can be destabilizing. So, there appears to be an increase in violence. The violence related to the elections is of two types: First, there is violence by people, mainly the Taliban and some of their allies—remnants of al Qaeda in Afghanistan and a few other groups—that are trying to prevent the elections or discredit them, de-legitimate, and intimidate people from taking part. But there’s also another kind of electoral violence, which is quite common around the world, which is from people who want to win the elections, who are therefore intimidating their opponents and their opponents’ voters. I think we can expect to see a lot more of that kind of violence after the polling takes place.
There will be a lot of challenges to the election’s legitimacy. There may be attempts to capture ballots as they are transported for counting, and also there is a rule in the electoral law, which is colloquially known as “the assassination clause.” The electoral system in each province is a multimember district. And if there are, say, twenty seats in that province, then twenty people who get the most votes are elected. But under this rule, if one of those twenty people dies or decides not to take up his or her post, then the twenty-first person moves up. So that means there’s quite an incentive to make the winners “offers that they can’t refuse.”
How prevalent are these warlords still?
Most of the power in Afghanistan is still not exercised in accordance with the law, but the situation has changed since the immediate aftermath of the war in early 2002. Then there were five big armies and lots of small armies, or militias, all over the country. Those five big armies, who were commanded by relatively well-known warlords, have been demobilized. Therefore, those big warlords, whose names people know—such as Ismail Khan, Rashid Dostum, Fahim Mohammed Atta—they are no longer military commanders, but they are still very influential figures. One of them is a minister, several are governors, others are police chiefs, and they have political followings and they’ll be mobilizing people, but they no longer command large armies with heavy weapons.
There are, according to the United Nations, an estimated 1,800 illegal armed groups around the country, and about 100 are particularly dangerous. Many of these are linked to trafficking, preying on people, and so on. One key thing to understand about this election is that it was closely linked to the demobilization of illegal armed groups. In fact, people in the United Nations will say this election is not primarily about making Afghanistan democratic; this election is primarily about moving politics away from militarization and into civilian competition.
An example of this is the process of vetting the candidates. It was carried out in what was on the one hand, clever, and on the other hand, an unsatisfactory, manner. There’s a rule in the electoral law that nobody who is a commander or a member of an armed group can be a candidate for parliament or for provincial councils. And one of the criteria for that was you had to cooperate with the demobilization of illegal armed groups if you were listed as a member or commander of an illegal armed group. Twenty-eight people were finally disqualified. But the major, really powerful commanders were not disqualified because they’re too powerful to be disqualified by an electoral complaints commission.
Some of them are in the government too, right?
Yes. Some of them are governors or police chiefs or other types of officials, but none of them are in the cabinet at the moment. Ismail Khan is a cabinet member, but he is not commanding an armed group at the moment. He is minister of energy, water and power and everyone says he’s actually doing quite a good job.
Tell me about the mood of the people. The news reports seem to say there’s going to be a large turnout; people are really eager to vote. Is that your sense of it?
Yes. People are really eager to vote and there will be a large turnout, despite the dangers. That means people in Afghanistan want to have a government that is not run by armed men and that is accountable to them. It does not mean they will have that after they vote. They’re very enthusiastic to participate, but they’re also quite skeptical as to what the results will be. So there’s a lot more work to be done afterwards.
I take it the United Nations is going to supervise these elections to give them legitimacy.
There’s a joint electoral management body that is run between the United Nations and the Afghan Electoral Commission. There’s extensive international involvement, but at the same time, given the security conditions, the actual polling places around the country are staffed and monitored entirely by Afghans.
Will this reverberate favorably on [President Hamid] Karzai, or is that a secondary issue?
Well, we’ll see what the outcome is. At the moment, I would say my impression is that President Karzai’s popularity inside Afghanistan has undergone a precipitous drop since his election [in October 2004] because people have not been that impressed with how he has delivered in terms of reform, modernization, delivery of services, and decisive leadership. I think the parliament will possibly reflect that. But bear in mind that the way this parliament is being elected—without political parties—and the way the government is structured—without a prime minister—the president will have very few, if any, tools to manage the parliament. He’ll have to deal with each member as an individual, which is what the president likes to do, but that’s quite difficult. It works for loya jirgas that meet for two weeks and then go home, but it’s quite difficult with a sitting body that has to pass complex legislation.
How big is this assembly going to be?
The lower house will have 249 members. The upper house will have one-and-a-half times the number of provinces—there are now thirty-four—so there’ll be fifty-one members in the upper house. It’s a truncated upper house because they actually need to have district elections for it to be fully formed, and they’re not able to do that yet.
And this is a parliament without political parties, so how do they form a leadership within the assembly?
On the one hand, there are parliamentary and some constitutional regulations for electing a speaker, a deputy speaker, a management board, and so on. I think we’ll probably see informal political groupings or parties that will form within the parliament, rather than around the elections. That may then lead to—I hope—a change from the electoral system in the future that will provide more room for political parties to form.
Aside from the elections, what’s the situation now? How is the economy doing?
There are two ways of answering that question. One is to compare it to what it was four years ago, and the other is to compare it to everybody else in the world. This is the difficulty in talking about Afghanistan; you have to do what F. Scott Fitzgerald talked about: “The sign of true intelligence is you have to be able to hold two contradictory ideas in your mind at the same time without going nuts.” And that is to say Afghanistan’s economy has boomed, largely because of opium, but for other reasons as well over the last four years. Its government has doubled the amount of revenue it has collected; the number of children going to school has quadrupled; government has healthcare; it’s built an Afghan national army, which is up to around 20,000, it’s mobilized many of the militias that I referred to, and has many other achievements.
And the result right now is Afghanistan is still one of the five or six poorest countries in the world; 40 percent of the people in rural areas go hungry—that is they do not get enough calories, at least part of the year. There’s rampant malnutrition. It has the highest rate of maternal mortality ever recorded in the world in some regions. It has a life expectancy of forty-five years. It has more weapons per capita than probably any other country. Forty percent of the total economy last year derived from narcotics, and there’s no strategic consensus around the country and among its neighbors about what its future should be. In addition, the Islamic clergy is still of two minds as to whether this whole new system is legitimate or not.
The government now, after doubling the amount it takes in, collects 5 percent of the GDP in taxes, which is still less than any other country in the world for which there is data. So the government collects 5 percent of the GDP in taxes, and it spends 10 percent of the GDP. The other 5 percent comes from foreign aid, which is directly spent by donors themselves, bypassing the government. Foreign aid is three times government spending, and income from drugs is twice as large as foreign assistance. So in terms of where Afghan people are looking for assistance and incomes: First, drugs. Second, foreign aid. Third, the government.
When we talked last you were concerned that any efforts to eradicate the drug crop would impoverish the farmers even more. Is there a program to try to deal with drugs?
There is a program and it’s somewhat changing. I would say the U.S. approach has evolved in particular over the past year from one which was dominated by what I would call drug war ideologues in Washington, to one which is more pragmatic and focused on the needs of Afghanistan. Therefore it is focused on the one hand on alternative livelihoods for the farmers, and on the other hand, on the interdiction of traffickers—which I think is the right approach.
The problem is I still think we have not recognized the dimensions of the problem and the tremendous difference in the way Afghans view it from the way internationals view it. Afghanistan is not comparable to any other country in the world in terms of its dependence on narcotics. It’s 40 percent of the total economy. That means provides more than half of the total cash incomes in the economy, because much of the economy consists of subsistence farming. So that means the new construction we see is funded by drugs; a lot of these election campaigns are funded by drugs; the local power holders in the districts and the provinces—including quite a few of the governors—are working hand-in-glove with the narcotics traffickers. It doesn’t mean the country is controlled by narcotics criminals—they don’t see themselves as narcotics criminals. They see themselves as Afghan political leaders who are using the resources available, which right now, in such an impoverished country with such a low-level rule of law, consists of drugs.
So I think the main approach has to be helping Afghanistan to develop an economy that is not dependent on drugs. And then, a much less draconian law-enforcement regime will be effective, because these are not people who are ideologically committed to wrecking the system. They are not committed to being career criminals, but they are looking for an alternative, which right now they don’t see. But because we have an approach to drugs which is that it’s evil, criminal, and so on, it’s very difficult for us to even have an honest discussion with them about how to get rid of it. If they don’t come in immediately and say they’re completely against it, which in fact they’re not, then they’re kind of ostracized and they’re not part of the political dialogue.
This year there was some success in decreasing the amount of area under cultivation, although production stayed pretty much the same because of high yields. But I don’t know if that will be sustainable because the amount of aid we put in to help people is really not commensurate with something that amounts to 40 percent of the economy.
There were reports in the New York Times and the Washington Post that there are some plans to start withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan next year. Is that true?
That was a misleading report and it was denied by the U.S. Ambassador [Ronald Neumann] the next day. The Pentagon would like to withdraw some of the U.S. forces from Afghanistan next year, but they are not going to do it regardless of the conditions. They have not made a decision to do so; they are trying to determine how they could do so. And the conditions for that are: First, if the security situation improves—and right now the security situation is not improving, it’s getting worse. Second, if European members of NATO are willing to contribute the troops to take over, not only the stabilization mission, but also the counterinsurgency mission. And France, Germany, and Spain said clearly they are not willing to do that. So, essentially this draw-down cannot happen unless either the insurgency is defeated or European troop contributors change their policies. Neither of that is likely to happen within the next year.