Life of the Parties


In Afghanistan, many of the problems coming home to roost now are the result of too little American intervention rather than too much. That does not mean too little American aid. In any case, private enterprise is doing very well, thank you: Afghans are a practical people with good capitalist instincts. They can pull themselves out of poverty given the right laws and the rule of law — as well as the institutions that go to make up a functional civil society.

Of these institutions, one that is most crucial is political parties. Even one-party states have them, and with reason. They bring people together across ethnic and class lines, and often serve as a counterweight to clan ties and religious affiliation. Moreover, they lead citizens to think in national terms, rather than to vote reflexively along ethnic lines. Finally, political parties could be an essential weapon in our counterinsurgency in the border provinces.

But Afghanistan — thanks to some dubious decisions by the Afghan government, and our acquiescence — is the land parties forgot. This is even more of a pity because of the dearth of other institutions. Afghanistan is poor not just in per capita income — about $350 a year, double what it was three years earlier — but in structures that link unrelated people. All sorts of organizations Americans take for granted simply don’t exist. There are no groups like PTAs, children’s sport leagues, alumni associations and country clubs. Nor are there those that constitute “special interest politics,” such as trade unions, manufacturers’ associations, or lobbyists for economic or ethical concerns. Afghanistan is kept poor by the lack of trust among unrelated citizens and the absence of a sense of common interest. All it has are family and ethnic loyalties — wonderful in many ways for those nurtured within strong families, but not so wonderful for economic growth and civil society.

With very little pulling Afghans together, greed and extremism are more potent forces than in more densely networked societies. The absence of norms of good civic behavior allows some of the Afghan elite to take advantage of their inherited positions to loot their homeland. The corruption of many of Hamid Karzai’s associates is undermining efforts to build the Afghan state. How can anyone expect ordinary Afghans to work for the national interest when their country is being robbed blind?

The U.N. feared that strong political parties could revive the civil war, but it is more accurate to say that the absence of overt party politics has allowed the worst covert organizations to flourish. Some 34 former or current members of Hezb-e-Islami, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s violent fundamentalist party, won seats in Afghanistan’s parliamentary elections last September. Perhaps half of parliament’s lower house are fundamentalists. And in an environment where legitimate businesses lack an open voice in the legislative process through trade organizations and lobbyists, guess which illegal business is rumored to be financing many MPs? (U.S. and NATO experts are discussing previously unthinkable ideas like buying and destroying the opium crop, since the feeble interdiction programs are not working and the opium money is financing, indeed in some places creating, the insurgency.)

Without competing, coherent ideologies, the Taliban can eat away at the elected government. If it’s a choice between Mr. Karzai and associates — people, not a party — and a group that claims to fight corruption, who is the average villager going to trust?

There is another factor involved in the seeming revival of the Taliban, and it’s not ideology. Afghans are not particularly ideological. The Taliban are popular only within a narrow geographic and ethnic band which mirrors their Hotak Ghilzai tribal membership. As two innovative scholars of Pashtun society, Thomas Johnson and Chris Mason, argue, the districts where the Taliban has gained support are exactly those which are Ghilzai, a powerful tribe that lost out to the Durrani tribe 300 years ago and has tried to bounce back ever since. This is about power, not ideology: The Ghilzai provided the leaders both to Afghanistan’s communist movement and the jihadis who opposed them. Now they are attacking NATO troops because we support a Durrani-dominated government. (Mr. Karzai and the royal family are Durranis, and so are most of his Pashtun associates and Afghanistan’s power elite.)

Most Afghans can at least see the benefit of civil society and the rule of law. Anyone who is not a member of the largest ethnic bloc, the Pashtuns — 40% of the population — has more to gain from strengthening the central government and the concept of Afghan nationhood. (Not incidentally, the relatively prosperous north and west are Tajik, Hazara, Turkmen and Uzbek, with few Pashtuns.) That’s 60% of the population, plus progressive Pashtuns and Pashtuns from marginalized tribes. The Ghilzais must be co-opted, too, in order to weaken the insurgency. This must be done cautiously, of course, as they are no more interested in sharing power than are the Durranis.

There are no insuperable barriers to pushing and pulling Afghans toward a functioning democracy and civil society. The problem is that the U.S. and the U.N. have saddled Afghanistan with a voting and parliamentary system that does exactly the opposite, offering no alternative to voting by ethnicity and failing to make it worthwhile for ethnic groups to form coalitions. Elections were set up by the U.N. using a voting system (“Single Non-Transferable Vote,” or SNTV) where each citizen chooses just one candidate from a long list of contenders to represent his district. (In Kabul, for instance, 387 candidates were on the ballot, but each voter chose one.)

Under these circumstances, Afghans have voted ethnically. In the October 2004 presidential election, “no candidate received significant support outside of their particular ethno-linguistic group,” as Thomas Johnson of the Naval Postgraduate School has pointed out. Worse yet, Pashtuns and Tajiks — the two most numerous ethnic groups — are not only overwhelmingly likely to vote for candidates from their own groups, but against candidates from a perceived rival group. The Pashtun Mr. Karzai did not receive a majority of the vote of any ethnic group save his own. He still won 55.4% of the vote, with the other major candidates gaining 16.3%, 11.7% and 10%.

When the September 2005 parliamentary elections were set up, no political party affiliations were allowed on the ballots; instead, candidates had a randomly picked symbol next to their names and photos (helpful to the many illiterate voters). The prohibition of party politics was largely at Mr. Karzai’s urging. As the best-known politician in Afghanistan, it was to his advantage to avoid giving potential opponents the buoying effect of a party affiliation, and to have a rubber-stamp parliament of unknowns. However, while parliament is often ineffectual, it has neither expedited the policies of his cabinet nor been able to present alternatives. Instead, it has been a vibrant but disorganized forum in which neophyte politicians struggle to understand the way legislation is enacted and religious fundamentalists try to block anything that smacks of secularism.

“Parliament came five years too soon,” an American advisor to a cabinet minister told me. “It’s slowing down approval processes and creating a forum for debate that has yet to prove useful.” Given low levels of education and business experience in Afghanistan, even among elites, it’s not surprising many MPs have difficulty understanding a budget, much less proposing improvements to it. But having parties in place would have allowed the more capable members to instruct the less prepared.

The absence of political parties was also shortsighted for Mr. Karzai himself, making his effectiveness depend on personal popularity. He was at his zenith when the system was designed; now he is grudgingly accepted as the least of the possible evils by a resigned electorate. Mr. Karzai would be better off with a party organization behind him: In the U.S. even an unpopular president can get things done because party discipline supports him. And a successor to an unpopular president can be groomed within a party even as challengers from competing parties ready their bids. Instead, the Afghan situation is that of a barely competent president with no more competent successor.

Prof. Johnson also points out that most Afghan voters are not represented by a candidate they voted for. Due to a combination of SNTV voting and a 50% turnout, only about 18% of eligible voters in Afghanistan are represented by a candidate they voted for; 64% chose a candidate who lost. Prof. Johnson notes that “many candidates won virtually by chance,” with the top finishers in some provinces gathering only a few percent of the votes cast. This might be tolerable in a mature democracy, but is not what one wants in a country with scant trust in the electoral system and little sense of national identity. The next parliamentary elections aren’t until 2010, so there is time to set up a better voting system. SNTV should be replaced, requirements stiffened for obtaining a place on the ballot to avoid such farces as choosing among 387 candidates, and runoffs considered.

An Afghan-American member of parliament, Daoud Sultanzoy, has advanced another good idea: take representation down to the district level. Currently, the people of each of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces vote for members of parliament from their province, and the highest vote-getters become representatives of that province according to its population. But representatives are not linked with particular districts as they are in the U.S, though some provinces are the size of whole European countries and differ widely in population, terrain and economy. Nor are there mayoral elections for small towns in Afghanistan, so there is no one to represent the national government on a local level.

Afghanistan’s biggest problem is not the Taliban, but underdeveloped institutions and a lack of rule of law. It is emphatically not “another Iraq.” Most of Afghanistan is relatively peaceful. Just 192 American troops have been killed in action since fall 2001, and in 2006, 206 Afghan civilians were murdered in suicide bombings. Tragic, yes, but in 2003, the last year for which statistics are available, 16,000 Afghan women died in childbirth — 44 a day.

As this comparison suggests, we need to foster civil society and robust institutions in order to assure a decent life for Afghanistan’s citizens. An essential part of this is nurturing political parties.

Ms. Marlowe is the author of “The Book of Trouble” (Harcourt, 2006), a memoir.

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