The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The U.S. helped design Afghanistan’s constitution. It was built to fail.

The presidential system did not encourage compromise. Nor did a flawed method of choosing members of parliament.

A Taliban patrol in Kandahar, Afghanistan, on Aug. 22. (EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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Creating a stable Afghanistan was never fundamentally a military problem. States survive or collapse on the strength of their political foundations — and Afghanistan is rough terrain for establishing a viable democratic state. As two political scientists who, between 2004 and 2012, advised the U.S. State Department on institutional design in Afghanistan, we witnessed multiple missteps that helped seal Afghan democracy’s fate. At a very basic level, the founders of the new state chose the wrong governing institutions — ones that were either unsuited to existing power dynamics or that were intrinsically likely to foster division rather than compromise.

The United States had unparalleled influence on the design of Afghanistan’s new democracy, so it bears considerable responsibility for these errors. It oversaw the creation of a highly centralized national government rather than investing in regional autonomy that better reflected conditions on the ground. It rejected a parliamentary system in favor of a presidential system — a kind of government that fosters a winner-take-all posture among politicians and the electorate, and self-aggrandizement in the president himself. Afghanistan’s founders — under American influence — also embraced a method of voting in multi-member districts that political scientists know is intrinsically flawed. The constitution’s designers, moreover, discouraged the development of party politics, even though parties underpin democracy by organizing factions and facilitating cooperation.

These choices generated powerful incentives for a politics of individualism and factionalism rather than coalition building. All of this was well known, and noted, at the time.

Two men dominated the construction of the 2004 constitution — Hamid Karzai, who served as interim president from 2002 to 2004 (and as president after that), and Zalmay Khalilzad, who served as U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005 and oversaw the new charter’s drafting and ratification. The constitution itself was written by a 35-member commission including both Afghans and foreign legal experts, working largely in secret; it finished its work in November 2003. A month later, the document was offered as a fait accompli to the 500-plus members of the constitutional Loya Jirga — selected by regional caucuses — meeting in a huge tent in Kabul. Over three weeks, the Loya Jirga expressed misgivings about the choice of institutions they had been presented, but they were given almost no leeway to amend the details.

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Karzai, who had been anointed by the West to lead Afghanistan, was not a member of the entrenched patchwork of regional power brokers who had parceled out power in the country for decades. So it was not surprising that he and American officials sought, ultimately in vain, to make the center of Afghanistan — the capital in Kabul — strong and the periphery weak. Toward that goal, the Constitution conferred vast formal authority in the presidency, leaving it largely unconstrained by the legislature. (The president, for instance, appointed provincial governors.) Yet the Afghan president’s true power never matched the power he possessed on paper, and regional leaders understood this.

To take root, democracy requires the consent of election losers. But presidential systems of government — in contrast to parliamentary systems — create a winner-take-all contest for control of the executive branch that works against gaining the losers’ acquiescence (as the United States itself learned in 2020). Scholars have documented this tendency in, for example, South American countries that backslid into dictatorships, and it was readily evident in Afghanistan, where the presidential elections were marred by irregularities, fraud and failures to concede. The most recent such election, in 2019, produced a months-long standoff between the top candidates, incumbent President Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, that was only “resolved” by a murky power-sharing deal under which Ghani retained the titular presidency but Abdullah exercised some executive authority. Ghani and Abdullah had also faced off in 2014, leading to a similar standoff — and a similar power-sharing arrangement.

Then there was the misguided voting system. In designing institutions for post-conflict societies riven by deep divisions, the key imperative is that the rules of political competition should reward pulling together rather than going it alone. This means setting rules that encourage individual politicians to gather under a single banner. If Boss A and Warlord B can win a greater share of representation and power by forming the AB Front than they can each on his own, they’re more likely to seek common ground.

Yet Afghanistan chose a voting system for voting for members of parliament that is known to produce the strongest anti-coalition incentives possible. It opted for “single nontransferable voting” (known as SNTV), which refers to a system in which districts have multiple members, and each voter casts a ballot for only one candidate.

In the United States, legislators are chosen in single-winner elections. In each district, the one candidate with the most votes wins, so only the largest bloc of voters gets represented. Most democracies around the world, however, elect their lawmakers in multi-member districts, which allow for more inclusive representation. A given district might have legislators from more than one party, ethnicity, religion or ideological current. In Afghanistan’s fractured society, multi-member districts were the right choice but SNTV was not.

Most election rules reward cooperation by allowing politicians who run under a common banner, usually called a party list, to pool their votes together. If one member of the list attracts more votes than are needed to win a single seat, the extra support can bring additional team members into parliament. Not so under SNTV, in which votes cannot be pooled: It’s every candidate for himself or herself. Under SNTV, appealing to a larger share of voters than needed to secure a single seat gains politicians nothing, so they attend to their core supporters only.

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Two critical, and predictable, results followed. First, Afghan lawmakers did not form stable coalitions or meaningful parties. Any decision from parliament required construction of a new majority from scratch. Second, ballots themselves turned into interminable lists of individuals. In the Kabul district, which elected 33 representatives, the ballot contained more than 400 candidates in 2005, and nearly 700 in 2010, for instance. Afghan voters could not decipher their options, much less enforce accountability through elections.

SNTV is used by almost no successful democracies. (Jordan, the Pitcairn Islands, and Vanuatu use SNTV for their main legislative assemblies. Indonesia and Thailand use it to select upper chambers with limited authorities). Japan and Taiwan had used SNTV in the late 20th century but abandoned it well before Afghanistan embraced it, on grounds that it fostered corruption and factionalism. And that’s precisely what the system promoted in Afghanistan. People who might seek accommodation and a broader vision of politics got no advantage over those who intended to look after only their local interests and their own inner circle. SNTV encouraged the narrowest conception of political representation imaginable, and that’s exactly what Afghans got.

When the foundations of a building take no account of the terrain underneath, instability results. The Afghan president had all the power on paper but little in practice. He sat atop a state without military muscle, popular legitimacy or riches to distribute. And the legislature was chaotic — a group of individuals that could not focus on the common good. In short, Afghan institutions of governing created a power vacuum, and it was filled at the local level by warlords, chancers, criminal gangs — and the Taliban, who have now taken over.

We cannot know whether a better-designed Afghan democracy would have gained traction. But we can say with confidence that the institutions chosen for Afghanistan seriously undermined the nation’s chances.