(Wall( Street journal)
By Javid Ahmad
Afghanistan will hold two crucial elections in the next seven months: a parliamentary vote in October and a presidential election in April. The outcomes could help sustain a steady course for the teenage democracy, and jockeying is under way among political factions. But a rise in organized political violence threatens to taint the elections and derail the nation’s progress toward stable governance.
More than at any time since the Taliban was ousted in 2001, rampant criminality has returned to the heart of Afghanistan’s politics. Kabul is overrun with mafia-style networks that control the national drug trade and bring violence to the streets with armed robberies and factional warfare. The crime wave has seriously debilitated political stability and internal security, as each criminal syndicate attempts to use the government to protect its business and ensure its longevity.
Many Afghan politicians and strongmen engage in or support these organized criminal activities. Drug smuggling, land grabbing, extortion, illegal mining, kidnapping, revenue theft, torture and arbitrary detention all take place under the protection of the strongmen who serve in government. Some prominent political groups also retain private militias. Controlling territory with an armed presence allows parties to distribute spoils to their supporters and actively intimidate their opponents.
Afghanistan’s previous regime helped entrench the current disorder. The Hamid Karzai administration cultivated a small group of Afghan power brokers, including some with criminal pasts, creating an elaborate network of undemocratic patronage. These men were frequently shuffled between powerful government positions to maintain a semblance of stability, and had unfettered access to cash and profitable contracts. Most of them sought to profit from the U.S. war on terror and had a direct hand in criminalizing politics.
Today these strongmen struggle to protect the areas under their control, knowing their survival depends on it. Many Afghan politicians are now carving themselves new identities as a means of suppressing their criminal pasts or associations with unfavorable leaders or political parties. To do so, they constantly switch political alliances, form shaky grand coalitions, or engage in horse-trading. Almost every large political party is founded around a personality cult, and leaders pass on their authority to handpicked successors.
The political struggle has also affected Afghan society beneath the surface, deepening divisions in civil society. Seeking loyalty and popularity, the strongmen appeal to their supporters in the divisive terms of ethnicity and identity. They regularly capitalize on personal resentments and ideological schisms to polarize the public.
One immediate effect of this divide is that some Afghan ethnic groups feel secure only under their respective factional leaders. Conversely, however, many Afghans don’t see the criminal reputations of their own leaders as a problem and continue to support them.
Most Afghan politicians don’t subscribe to the basic principles of civil politics: morality, civility and decency. Every strongman’s fist is raised against the others, and many hold personal vendettas centered on money and power. The Afghan Parliament—which has turned into a clearinghouse for strongmen—is a main stage of the conflict. Instead of hashing out laws through civil dialogue, Afghan lawmakers often opt for brute force. Several have engaged in violence or encouraged acts of public vandalism. Some officials are even trying to undermine Afghanistan’s bilateral security pact with the U.S. The chaos has eroded public confidence and closed off an important arena for national debate.
Seeking to reform Afghan’s political culture, President Ashraf Ghani has gone after warlords and strongmen who were long thought untouchable. He is pursuing criminal cases against several power brokers, including a former minister in his own cabinet. He has also backed measures by the Afghan election commission to disqualify parliamentary candidates with criminal pasts. He has limited abuses of power and urged a younger generation of politicians to take charge. But these efforts will ultimately fail unless they are sustained beyond the current government’s term.
Afghanistan’s mafia-like politics pose a mortal threat to the country’s stability. For its part, the U.S. should use its remaining influence in the country to voice support for noncriminal candidates in the coming elections, and back Mr. Ghani’s efforts to restore civil debate and compromise in Afghan politics.
Mr. Ahmad is a fellow at the Atlantic Council.