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.