Political-Cultural Impediments to Reform in Afghanistan
President Ashraf Ghani

This article was first published on Foreign Policy's South Asia Channel.

Those thinking that Afghanistan’s unity government would move quickly to deal with the country’s chronic problems of governance have been disappointed. President Ashraf Ghani’s efforts to reduce corruption and cronyism thus far have moved slowly. Promises to appoint the most qualified individuals to top positions have fallen far short, and urgently needed electoral reforms are bogged down. Nowhere in sight are there strategies to effectively address Afghanistan’s deepening fiscal woes.

The sluggish start has been blamed on various causes, including Ghani’s management priorities and style. Hopes that a self-assured, reputed problem-solver could overcome the obstacles to reform have no doubt overestimated what one man can be expected to accomplish, especially when that man seems uncomfortable with delegating authority. Perhaps in recognition of the more intractable hurdles standing in the way of transformative domestic policies, Ghani’s strongest initiatives have come in foreign affairs, especially in the pursuit of peace negotiations with the Taliban. His largely successful trips abroad and well-received presentations at international meetings arguably mark the president’s most notable accomplishments to date.

To be sure, it is still early in the life of the government, and unrealistic expectations inevitably breed disenchantment. It will take time to sort out responsibilities given that the powers of the chief executive remain poorly defined. Still, signs are all too strong that problems with governance are going to continue to plague the Ghani presidency, much as they did that of his predecessor. Overlapping authorities and a poorly managed, inefficient civil bureaucracy will persist as a drag on plans for reform. Ethnic and personal rivalries complicate the appointments of the most able people to positions of power, and entrenched interests that have profited from the status quo also stymie change. A rarely used voting system and electoral laws that result in a fractious, undisciplined parliament also complicate the job of building a political consensus for reform.

Beyond these factors, the difficulties in implementing a reform agenda can be traced to Afghanistan’s political culture. While no single set of cultural characteristics exists, Afghan citizens and their leaders share many underlying values. These beliefs contribute to forming political attitudes and behavior. They often set the contours for public policy and establish expectations about the role of the state. Importantly, and unlike many everyday opinions, cultural norms change only gradually.

Traditional and tribal norms, as well as the nation’s Islamic heritage, contribute significantly to Afghanistan’s political culture. But these have been overlaid by a set of values forged in the crucible of 38 years of armed conflict and mass exile that has destroyed many of the older lines of authority and the accompanying value systems. More than a dozen years of international presence and assistance have altered economic incentives and exposed the country to the influence of foreign norms. Additionally, many core attitudes toward the state have been altered by post-2001 experiences with corrupt and ineffective public institutions, and a Taliban rule and insurgency that have introduced many values once thought alien to Afghanistan. What has emerged is a public demanding more from the government, but being reconciled to less; anxious for national unity, but vulnerable to divisive appeals; and hopeful of progress, while also apprehensive of the future.

In the past, Afghans had not anticipated much from their government. State authority was ordinarily viewed as predatory, to be avoided when possible. Local communities valued their independence. Expectations changed after 2001, however. Returning refugees who had been the recipients of internationally-run humanitarian programs while in exile, especially in Pakistan, became accustomed to public services. The massive post-Taliban influx of foreign assistance also created feelings of dependence that allowed Afghans to escape their own responsibilities for the country’s problems by holding others accountable.

The consensus needed to bring about the transformation of the country’s governance requires progress in altering how Afghans view their political world. Deep suspicions of the motives of public officials stand in the way of building public support and enlisting policy elites to enact a reform agenda. Afghans are predisposed toward a cynical view of their formal institutions. It is broadly assumed that those occupying positions of authority are congenitally self-serving and corrupt. Distrust is nowhere more evident than in the way Afghans tend to look at their justice system — the state institution that touches them more personally than any other. The courts and the police are widely believed to be at the service of the highest bidder. The low repute of both the national and provincial governments leads to disrespect for the laws, naturally including the avoidance of taxes. The last three fraud-ridden national elections no doubt intensified the doubts that Afghan citizens already felt toward their formal institutions.

The conspiratorial thinking that so strongly dominates popular narratives further corrodes public trust. It suggests that nothing coming from official sources should be taken at face value. Disguised motives and dark forces are seen as working against the national interest. This fuels frustrations and encourages feelings of helplessness in the face of large impersonal forces. For all of the disgust with corruption, there is also a feeling of resignation. Proposals of reform are not taken seriously or are held as suspect. Civic-minded groups find it difficult to establish credibility or gain widespread attention, either from the policymakers or the public.

Public distrust also threatens the president’s moves to refocus foreign policy. A deeply ingrained suspicion of Pakistan’s motives — resulting from its long-term harboring of Afghan insurgents — has left most citizens doubtful about the chances for successful cooperation with the government in Islamabad and the Pakistani military. Many of the constituencies to which Ghani looks to advance his domestic agenda may be the least willing to alter their views, which tend to blame Pakistan for all of Afghanistan’s ills.

Afghanistan is likely to remain a conservative society, slow to change. Attempts to implant new political and social values rapidly have historically encountered strong, often armed resistance. However, even deep-seated beliefs can be softened and altered over time. Traumatic events have been shown to accelerate change, and popular, determined leaders can inspire new ways of thinking. Over time, mass education will offer opportunities for re-socialization. With less prejudicial baggage than their elders, younger Afghans seem to be more amenable to fresh ideas. But perhaps the best hope for shaping a more positive political culture lies in the government earning the public’s confidence and trust through steady, perceptible progress in providing Afghans with security and a better life.