Afghan Government

Historical Background


After the overthrow of the Taliban in late 2001, several Afghan opposition groups met under the auspices of the United Nations in Bonn, Germany, to set the foundations for the new provisional government in Afghanistan. The Bonn Agreement, signed in December 2001, established a six-month Afghan Interim Authority to be led by Hamid Karzai. As per the Bonn Agreement, when the term for the interim body expired in June 2002, an Emergency Loya Jirga or "Grand Council"—a traditional Afghan decision-making body of prominent leaders from around the country—was held to establish an Afghan Transitional Authority and elect a Transitional Administration with Karzai as Interim President. The new President then appointed a commission to draft a new constitution, which was approved by a Constitutional Loya Jirga in January 2004.

The new Afghan Constitution established Afghanistan as an "Islamic Republic," with Islam as the official religion of the state. Furthermore, the Constitution declares that "No law shall contravene the tenets and provisions of the holy religion of Islam." Article seven of the new constitution also declares that the Afghan state should “abide by the UN charter, international treaties, international conventions that Afghanistan has signed, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”. The new Afghan Constitution established a democratic regime and provided for the separation of powers under a presidential system, with a strong executive, a bicameral legislature, and a judiciary. Hamid Karzai became the first President of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan during nationwide elections held in October 2004. Legislative elections were held in September 2005.

Government Structure and Function


Executive Branch


Afghanistan’s president is the head of state. The president is directly elected to a five-year term. There is a two term limit on the president.  A candidate for president must receive greater than 50 percent of the national popular vote. If no candidate receives more than 50 percent, then a runoff election is held between the two candidates with the most votes in the first round. Candidates for the presidency declare two running mates who will serve as their first and second vice presidents. In the event of the death, resignation, or impeachment of the president, the first vice president serves as interim president until new elections can be held.

In addition to appointing the vice presidents, the president of Afghanistan also has the power to appoint cabinet ministers, the attorney general, the central banker, a national security advisor, ambassadors, judges, and certain members of the upper house of the National Assembly. The president’s choice for cabinet ministers, Supreme Court nominees and several other high ranking government posts is subject to the parliament’s consent. The president is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, and with the approval of the National Assembly, has the power to declare war or a state of emergency.
The president and his administration have the power to propose legislation in the National Assembly. All laws in Afghanistan must be approved by the National Assembly and endorsed by the president, and the president has the power to veto any laws approved by the legislature. However, the National Assembly can override the president’s veto.


Legislative Branch (National Assembly)


The National Assembly is divided into two chambers: the Wolesi Jirga or "House of the People" and the Meshrano Jirga or "House of Elders."

 Wolesi Jirga

The Wolesi Jirga is the more powerful of the two houses of parliament and is made up of no more than 250 members (the 2004 electoral law set the size of the house at 249 members). Each member is directly elected to five-year terms. Representatives are allocated to each of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces in proportion to their population, with each province having a minimum two seats. According to the Constitution, there must be 68 female representatives (twice the number of provinces—about one quarter of the members), and, according to the 2004 electoral law, each province must have at least one female representative. In the 2005 elections, a single non-transferable vote system was used in which each person cast a single vote for one candidate in their province. The candidates who received the most votes in each province were seated in parliament. In 2005, there were no political party lists and all candidates ran as independents; however some candidates were members of or backed by political parties. Currently, there are over eighty registered political parties. Such a large number is not unusual in new democracies.

Legislation can originate in either the National Assembly or the president’s administration, and the proposal must first be introduced into the Wolesi Jirga. If it is approved by the Wolesi Jirga, then it is sent onto the Meshrano Jirga for approval. If the Meshrano Jirga rejects the proposed law, a two-thirds majority in the Wolesi Jirga can override it. Furthermore, a two-thirds majority in the Wolesi Jirga can also override a presidential veto.

Meshrano Jirga

The Meshrano Jirga is the "upper" house of parliament. It is the weaker of the two bodies, and is indirectly elected. Thirty-four members (one from each province) are elected by the provincial councils from among their own members to four-year terms. Another 34 members are elected by the district councils in each province from among their own members to three-year terms. The remaining 34 members are appointed by the president to five-year terms, and half of these appointees must be women. However, in 2005, the district council elections for members of the Meshrano Jirga did not take place.


Judicial Branch


The Supreme Court consists of nine members appointed by the president and approved by the Wolesi Jirga for a single period of ten years. Supreme Court justices must be legal experts or experts in Islamic jurisprudence, and the Court has been dominated thus far by conservative ulema (scholars). The Supreme Court does have some power of judicial review.


Key Personalities


Hamid Karzai is the current President of Afghanistan. An ethnic Pashtun from the Durrani tribe, Karzai was active in the mujahideen resistance against the Soviet invasion. After the fall of the Taliban, Karzai was appointed Chairman of the Afghan Interim Authority and later was elected Interim President by the Emergency Loya Jirga. Karzai won the first presidential election in 2004 and was up for reelection in 2009. He ran for reelection in the upcoming elections scheduled for August 2009.

Ahmad Zia Massoud is the current First Vice President of Afghanistan. An ethnic Tajik, Massoud is the younger brother of former Northern Alliance military commander Ahmad Shah Massoud. Massoud is a member of Jamiat-e Islami or the Islamic Society, the Tajik-dominated mujahideen faction (now political party) led by former president Burhanuddin Rabbani. Massoud is also a member of the United National Front, a coalition of parties also led by Rabbani that is composed of many former Northern Alliance leaders. President Karzai has dropped Zia Massoud from his reelection ticket.
Abdul Karim Khalili is the current Second Vice President of Afghanistan. An ethnic Hazara, Khalili is a leader of the Hezb-e Wahdat-e Islami or Islamic Unity Party. Hezb-e Wahdat was founded in 1988 under the patronage of Iran as a combination of several Shia Hazara factions that resisted the Soviets and later, the Taliban.
Abdul Rahim Wardak is the current Defense Minister of Afghanistan. An ethnic Pashtun, Wardak was a former member of the Afghan Army and a prominent leader in the anti-Soviet mujahideen resistance.
Mohamamd Hanif Atmar is Afghanistan’s recently appointed interior minister. His ministry is mainly tasked with policing and law order. Atmar served as the Minister of Education and prior to that as the Minister for Rural Rehabilitation and Development.
Ghulam Jailani Popal is the Director General of the Independent Directorate of Local Governance, a powerful body inside the Presidential Palace in charge of appointing local authorities such as governors and district chief.
Amrullah Saleh is the Director General of the National Directorate of Security, Afghanistan’s intelligence and counter-intelligence agency. He was a long time intelligence aide to the assassinated anti-Taliban resistance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud.
Atta Mohammad Nour is the powerful governor of the northern province of Balkh. A former commander in the Northern Alliance, Nour has successfully consolidated power in Balkh.
Haji Mohammad Muhaqiq is a member of the Afghan parliament and a powerful ethnic Hazara leader who garnerd over ten percent of votes in the 2004 Presidential Elections. He has declared support for Hamid Karzai in the upcoming elections in August 2009.
Gul Agha Sherzai is the powerful governor of Nangrahar povince. He served in President Karzai’s cabinet as the minister of Urban Development. Born in Kandahar, Sherzai was the first post-Taliban governor of that province.
Ismail Khan is the current Energy Minister of Afghanistan and former governor of Herat province. An ethnic Tajik, Khan was a former member of Jamiat-e Islami and the Northern Alliance, and is now a member of the United National Front. Despite joining the government in Kabul, Ismail Khan maintains a powerful presence in his home province of Herat and remains the strongest man in the West of the country.
Mohammad Yunus Qanuni is the current President of the Wolesi Jirga. An ethnic Tajik, Qanuni was a prominent member of the Jamiat-e Islami and the Northern Alliance. He is the leader of the New Afghanistan Party and a member of the United National Front.
Abdul Rashid Dostum is an Uzbek military leader, with a powerbase in the north of the country.  Known for often switching sides, Dostum fought with and against the Soviets and sided with the Northern Alliance against the Taliban. Dostum ran against Karzai in the 2004 elections and has held several positions in the Karzai government. Dostum is a member of the United National Front and a military affairs advisor to the President.




The current government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan faces a number of challenges, not the least of which is the fact that the central government’s authority is contested by a growing insurgency and hampered by the inability to deliver services.  Corruption is endemic among public officials and most of the security forces. Human resources are limited as the country’s educational institutions are poorly run and equipped. Lack of proper political mobilization has also created a system of patronage politics that is only perpetuating corruption and the inability of the government to deliver security and services.