Afghanistan’s political system is highly reminiscent of Western governments. In December 2004, Hamid Karzai became the first democratically elected president of Afghanistan in an election supported by the United States. The National Assembly was inaugurated the following December. After winning a second term in 2009, Karzai’s presidency came to an end in 2014. The Afghanistan presidential election of 2014 was controversial, and despite UN supervision there were many allegations of fraud.
After a second round of voting, the two frontrunners, Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai and Abdullah Abdullah, came to a power-sharing agreement with former finance minister and ex-World Bank economist Ahmadzai in the role of president and Abdullah taking the title of chief executive. Despite gains toward building a stable central government, a resurgent Taliban and continuing provincial instability — particularly in the south and the east — remain serious challenges for the government of Afghanistan.
Youth mobilization is taking root in Afghanistan through the creation of youth groups such as Afghan Youth Coordination Agency and social media is calling on youth to protest, which President Karzai took seriously enough to address it at the Afghanistan Youth Conference (Lavender, 2011). He should take it seriously as a 2011 study in Kabul University found students to be sympathetic towards the Arab Spring. Sixty-two percent of the students supported the demonstrations and 60% reported that Afghanistan could undergo a similar event. It is not surprising that uprising would be on the political consciousness of students as their voices are often dismissed, despite the large size of their cohort, due to the hierarchical structure of Afghan politics. Furthermore, a majority of the life spans of these youths have been fraught with upheaval and violence (Gaan, 2015).
Though youth groups are increasing, female youth are not as active as male youth. It is considered inappropriate for women to be involved in politics and when they are it tends to be focused around cultural issues. Those who do participate in politics are usually encouraged to do so by their families and are often the daughters of party officials. However, in 2009, young women played a significant role in protests against a sexist Shitte Personal Status Law, which consistently defines a man being equal to two women (Giustozzi, 2010; U.S. Agency for International Development, 2009). Though they are not as active as their male counterparts, female youth makes up a considerable portion of the population and the 2009 protest shows that political mobilization is within their capabilities.
Though women currently hold 69 seats, post-Taliban Afghanistan political operations have been uneven and challenging on women and girls. Women, who have made some headway in gender and education equality across Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban in 2002, face the distinct possibility of losing ground in their efforts since Afghan National Security Forces began leading security operations in 2013 and a national presidential election was conducted in 2014. They fear their seat at the table will be compromised and hard-won gains throughout society, including in education, will be stalled or worse, reversed. Indeed, the gains made early in the post-Taliban era were significant, chief among them the provision of equal rights to all citizens established in the new 2003 constitution, with the further step of defining all as inclusive of both men and women to sidestep the possibility of men defining women as non-citizens, thus negating this important progress. Women do, however, serve in 27.1% of parliamentary seats, well beyond the 21.7% worldwide average of women’s representation in directly-elected houses of parliament. (International Crisis Group, 2014).
In discussing women’s rights, the continued presence of the Taliban and Taliban sympathizers cannot be ignored. They send threatening messages to women and are responsible for heinous assaults such as acid attacks and burning down schools all in an attempt to silence women (Osbron, Dalton, Ruby, & Young, 2003). Foreign institutions are trying to promote gender equity through a central government instead of more localized powers. Through the 2006 Interim Afghanistan National Development Strategy, Provincial Reconstruction Teams and Provincial Development Committees were established which both have female members. In order to ensure that there was representation for women in the Wolesi Jirga, or the lower house of the National Assembly of Afghanistan, a quota of at least two women from each province was mandated; however that has been challenged and as of February 2014 the percentage of women in parliament has decreased from 25% to 20% (Kitch, 2014; Pippa, 2004). It is suggested that starting locally may be a more effective means to spread feminist thought. Participation in shuras, similar to town meetings, and local councils can help women in Afghanistan progress forward.
The current economic climate in Afghanistan can be characterized as hopeful yet wary. After decades of conflict with incursion from foreign nations as well as internal strife and violence with religious undertones amidst burgeoning progressive ideals, the economic identity of a country bolstered by immense foreign aid and investment is beginning to take shape.
From the time of the Taliban ouster as the nation’s governing body in 2001 until today in 2015, Afghanistan remains both a country in crisis and a nation with promise at an economic crossroads. Today’s Gross Domestic Product stands at $35.1 Billion (Heritage Foundation, 2015) and is at least 5 times higher than at the end of Taliban control in 2001 (USAID, 2014). Although this model of expansion has created opportunity as direct result of foreign funding infusion the upward spiral has begun to retract slightly from a recent high of $45.3 Billion in 2013 (CIA, 2015). Concern on this front is driven by a variety of factors, not the least of which is the December 2014 troop withdrawal of United States combat forces, which though certainly adversarial nonetheless brought billions in economic support to the nation for over a decade extending both through official channels and in local tribal interactions.
Growth is currently at 3.6% and the contraction is also seen in this regard as compared to the 10.5% 5-year compound annual growth rate measured from 2009-2014 and growth of 12.5% as late as 2012. Economic growth is also hindered by inflation of 7.4% and an official unemployment rate that is reported to be 8.5% (Heritage Foundation, 2015) with unofficial estimates as high as 35%. Despite significant foreign investment over more than a decade totaling over $100 Billion USD, the per capita income of Afghanis hovers at about $1,100.
Nearly 78% of the 7.5 million people in the labor force work in the agricultural sector (CIA, 2014) which, despite attempts to diversify, depends heavily on cultivation of the opium poppy. Though interest has been identified in attracting more foreign investment, and the constitution prohibits discrimination against investors from outside nations, foreign ownership of land remains illegal, some say hampering growth in this regard. Internal land disputes are common, due in large part to the lack of property registries and title databases, with an estimated 80% of land held and transferred informally through a shadow economy operating across the nation. As insurgency and corruption from continuing segments of Afghan life, actual growth remains difficult to sustain and, at times, as challenging to measure (Heritage Foundation, 2015).
Corporate and individual income taxes of 20 percent attempt to support a sagging infrastructure, much of which remains obsolete and in deep need of repair. Despite taxation as an official manner of revenue generation, Afghanistan continues to operate at a deficit with revenues of $2.3 Billion and expenditures of $4.1 Billion (CIA, 2015). Sales taxes also contribute to fiscal receipts, through the informal, or shadow economy which includes secret payments for official services, work outside of the purview of official agency and vast rural as well as tribal commerce actions all make it difficult to not only measure overall activity, but presents immense challenges in funding the infrastructure needs of a nation positioned somewhere between third-world status and modernity.