Groundhog Day in Afghanistan

Day after day, political crisis after political crisis, Afghanistan persists in going nowhere.

The sun is coming up again in Afghanistan, and today, like any other day, starts with an off-temperature shower, a simple breakfast buffet, and a short commute from home on one side of the compound to an office on the other side. Regardless of their organization, most international workers throughout the country share this ritual  -- as did I for the better part of last year's presidential election season.

The daily grind of aid work in Afghanistan mirrors the country's broader inertia. More than eight years after the U.S. invasion, the international community is still struggling to break out of a seemingly endless cycle of government crises and move toward a stable government -- and a clear path home. The international conference on Afghanistan in London this week may offer an opportunity to start making some progress. But it's not so easy: Working on democracy and governance in Afghanistan can feel a bit like being Bill Murray in Groundhog Day -- stuck reliving the same day over and over.

For those of us who endured the protracted presidential election in Afghanistan last year, the delay and confusion of the current cabinet approval process feels all too familiar. In August, observers huddled in dusty polling centers across the country to watch vote counts. Two months later, we gathered for a recount of those same ballots in a dusty airplane hangar. Last October, as the election auditing process stretched on, there were weeks when no one in our office could remember what day it was -- we were working 14-hour days, but there was little in our results to distinguish one day from another. I can only imagine that diplomats handling the current cabinet crisis are having a similar experience. The parliament has rejected the majority of two slates of cabinet nominees, dragging the process toward more parliamentary voting. (Another negotiation, another vote, another Groundhog Day.)

The recently announced delay in the scheduled 2010 parliamentary elections from May to September is being welcomed by the international community, but it does not actually represent much of a change. Almost a year ago exactly, the Independent Election Commission delayed the presidential election several months, from the spring to the fall, using similar reasoning. The delay of parliamentary elections will allow for much needed administrative reforms, such as identifying more broadly accepted election commissioners, but it should not be confused with a change in practice or system. Even under the new date, Afghan authorities will not have the opportunity to reform a five-year-old process that removes any electoral incentive to run as a cohesive party, producing a fractured parliament that, until last month's rejection of cabinet nominees, had shown little capacity to check President Hamid Karzai's power. Because Afghan law forbids any changes to the electoral law in the last year of the legislative term, even the new September date will not allow changes to a fundamentally flawed system. In fact, because presidential, parliamentary, provincial, and district council elections are out of sync, there is an election nominally scheduled every year between now and 2027, except 2012. Afghan elections could be stuck in an annual cycle of voting for more than a decade without reform.

The international community shares some responsibility for the crisis of governance in Afghanistan. In 2003 and 2004, as foreign diplomats and leading Afghans crafted structures for the new Afghan government, they faced a choice of enhancing Karzai's power or weakening the office in favor of civil institutions. Leading ambassadors opted for personality over process and gave Karzai, who was then a popular leader, a government system that he could bend to his needs. The parliamentary election system, for instance, was modeled after a system so convoluted that it was abandoned by the Japanese as unworkable -- but somehow deemed appropriate for Afghanistan. Because voters elect multiple seats at a time but get only a single, non transferable vote, candidates running together under the common banner of a political party lost all incentive to distinguish themselves. The same system was used in the Afghan provincial council elections last year, and it led to the top candidate in Kabul receiving only 2.1 percent of the provincial vote -- not exactly a mandate to lead. The dysfunctional parliament greatly increased Karzai's power over the past five years, and it is little wonder that he is now pressing to hold parliamentary elections under the same system.

Breaking this cycle of troubled governance is vital to allowing international troops to come home and will require steps both small and large.

On the practical side, international actors need to focus on simple reforms to ensure that their democracy and governance programs are sustainable within the long-term Afghan budget. If the London conference is to chart a course toward transfer of responsibility to the Afghan government, then international diplomats must adopt strategies that are viable under those conditions. Proposals for biometric voting or civil registry cards may be chic, but they require far more money and technical expertise than the Afghan budget could maintain. When voter cards with fingerprint identification were implemented under a U.N. technical assistance program for the 2009 presidential elections, they could not be matched with the original voter registrations from 2004 and 2005. So, after international donors spent more than $100 million for voter registration, Afghans arrived at polls last August with no voter rolls and cards with fingerprints no one could scan. At some point, another such voter-registration effort will occur -- a terrible Groundhog Day experience for international donors' bank accounts.

On the philosophical side, international diplomats must move past the politics of personalities and into the process of institutions. During the presidential election there was an understandable fixation on whether Karzai or his advisors had cheated on a massive scale. But focusing solely on Karzai overlooks the reality that the Afghan presidential election system has built-in temptations for fraud, from the local level up to the presidential, regardless of who sits in what seat. For example, all governors are appointed by the Afghan president -- meaning that governors don't even need nudging from Karzai to help keep him in office using any means necessary: their jobs already depend on it.

Provincial and district governor appointments also create challenges for governance within the province -- and not just in election years. In 2005, for example, Sher Muhammad Akhunzada, then the governor of Helmand, was reportedly found with nine tons of opium in his basement and replaced by the more suitable Gulab Mangal after British diplomats pressured Karzai. But even when the international community succeeds in removing a corrupt governor and a decent replacement is installed, it is only a temporary measure capable of being reversed with the flick of the presidential pen. By 2008, Karzai was considering reinstating Akhunzada, arguing that his involvement in the drug trade should be overlooked because his tribal connections could bolster the government's efforts in Helmand. After a redoubling of diplomatic pressure, Akhunzada was not reappointed, but the larger lesson is this: Until provincial and district governors are elected, they will always be upwardly accountable to their patrons -- whether international donors or the president -- not downwardly accountable to their people. Again, the fixation on the politics of personalities is distracting and delays the measures needed for long-term stability in governance in Afghanistan.

At the London conference, the international community will likely be asked to fund a reconciliation and reintegration program for Taliban fighters, which could well include roles for them in government. This program may be worthwhile, but it will not be sustainable until the current system of governance is reformed and Taliban fighters have guarantees that do not depend solely on the president's approval. Creating a space inside government for a cohesive loyal opposition will be essential for the long-term strength of any political agreements between the government and its opponents. This week, let's hope that international diplomats in London poke their heads up, see their shadow, and get focused on building a sustainable system of governance. Or else we have a long winter ahead, filled with lots more Groundhog Days.



When Yemen Meets Gaza

Yemen is now exporting jihadists to the Palestinian fight. What does it mean for Middle East peace -- and the global war on terrorism?

The Christmas Day pants bomber traveled a well-worn path to global terrorism: through Yemen. From the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in the Gulf of Aden, to the role key Yemenis played in the September 11 plot, to the increasingly prominent role of Yemen-based leaders of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the Gulf country has long been a terrorist hot-spot. Now, a small number of Yemeni jihadists have reportedly joined others from Syria, Egypt, France, and Belgium to fight a new war on an old battlefront: Gaza.

According to intelligence officials, up to a few dozen foreign fighters have entered Gaza from Yemen and other Middle Eastern and European countries. Some are experienced fighters there to provide training, while others seek to be trained and experience jihad.  Some of the Europeans have even reportedly "come with their credit cards" and financed jihadist activities while in Gaza.  

The influx is beginning to have an effect on what has traditionally been a local jihad. Groups such as Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade weave Palestinian nationalism and radical Islamism together but limit their operations to the Israeli-Palestinian front. Now, under the influence of more worldly jihadists, some Palestinian fighters are signing up for groups inspired by al Qaeda, fighting not for Palestine but for the whole Muslim umma.

Al Qaeda-inspired jihadist groups in Gaza have maintained a local operational focus on Israel and Gaza, but have tied their attacks to global issues like the Danish cartoon crisis or the incarceration of a jihadist ideologue in Britain. The fear among U.S. and Israeli intelligence is that such a "glocal" ideology is serving as a bridge between Palestinian nationalism and al Qaeda's global jihadist ideology. The former theoretically allows for a two-state solution; the latter requires adherents to wage violent jihad against all infidels and apostates until the creation of an Islamic state.

Hamas in Gaza -- by engaging in secular politics, failing to institute sharia law, and cracking down on fellow Palestinians who attack Israel or threaten its rule -- has created a vacuum that global jihadist groups, often populated by disgruntled Hamas operatives, have been keen to fill. Even so, membership in Gaza's global jihadist groups is estimated to be in the low hundreds. But while their capabilities are limited, they think big. In July 2008, Israeli intelligence successfully thwarted a plot against former British Prime Minister Tony Blair by one such group.

Jaish al-Islam is infamous for its involvement in the kidnappings of BBC reporter Alan Johnston in 2007. Jund Ansar Allah's activities came to the foreground in mid-August 2009, when security forces from the Hamas-run government in Gaza, together with members of Hamas's Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades terrorist wing, raided a mosque affiliated with the group and engaged in protracted gun battles with its followers. The clashes, which left 24 people dead and 130 wounded, followed a Friday sermon by the extremist cleric Sheikh Abd al-Latif Musa condemning the Hamas government and announcing the establishment of an Islamic emirate in Palestine.

Since al Qaeda-inspired groups threaten Hamas's authority, it is no surprise that Hamas has cracked down on them. What is surprising is that such groups have failed so far to connect more formally with al Qaeda, given al Qaeda's recent antipathy to Hamas and its history of incorporating local conflicts into its global jihadist campaign.

Al Qaeda likely remains unconvinced of the ideological commitment of groups like Jaish al-Islam, whose leader, Mumtaz Dughmush, is better known for his criminal past than his religious zealotry. Al Qaeda may also have concerns about the survivability of such groups, and it may be waiting patiently for groups to establish themselves before accepting them into the fold of its global jihadist movement.

Some have argued that the existence of al Qaeda-inspired groups in Gaza means that Hamas is no longer the worst option and that Israel should engage with Hamas without preconditions, lest al Qaeda take over. In fact, the global jihadist groups in Gaza lack grassroots support and are in no position to challenge Hamas's authority as the governing entity, let alone take over the Gaza Strip. Moreover, Hamas remains at the heart of the problem. Despite Hamas's ideological differences with al Qaeda leaders and its violent crackdown on global jihadists in Gaza, its own radicalization has ironically created an ideal springboard for still more extreme radicalization. When one ideologically motivated suicide bomber becomes a role model, all ideologically motivated suicide bombers become role models.

The question now is how the meeting of Gazan radical Islamic extremism and the nihilistic ideology of global jihad will play out. Add the influx of a small number of capable foreign fighters, and one is left with a disturbing quandary: What happens when Yemen comes to Gaza?