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Dr. Barfield is professor of anthropology at Boston University and the author of Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History (Princeton, 2010). Mr. Nojumi is a senior research fellow at George Mason University and the author of After the Taliban: Life and Security in Rural Afghanistan (Rowman & Littlefield, 2009). The contents of this article are the authors’ alone and do not present the perspectives of any governmental or nongovernmental institution.
American policy in Afghanistan fails to draw on the cultural and historical lessons of local governance in the country. It has wrongly assumed that building up a strong centralized government with formal institutions is the key to stability there. Over the last nine years, the United States and allied nations have helped the Afghans establish a national-level political system, expanded the reach of its national courts and police, built a stronger army and given unstinting support to all officials appointed by the Kabul government. In spite of such efforts, government authority at the provincial and district levels has failed to take root and remains ineffective. While this failure is well recognized, the source of the problem is not. Most blame the Karzai administration in Kabul (which has many faults), but the root cause is deeper. It lies in equating governance with government.
Governance is the manner in which communities regulate themselves to preserve social order and maintain their security. Government is the action of ruling, the continuous exercise of state authority over the population it governs. While governments in the developed world are the unquestioned suppliers of governance to their local communities, this has not been the case historically in Afghanistan. Here one finds adequate local governance in the absence of formal government institutions. Indeed, in rural Afghanistan, where the majority of the population resides, this has been the norm rather than the exception. Local populations expect, where possible, to solve their own problems through mediation and arbitration conducted by people of their own choosing. Successful regimes in Afghanistan have recognized this reality by devolving considerable informal decision-making power to local communities, letting them solve their own problems so that the state does not have to intervene. In return, local communities have recognized the sovereignty of the Afghan national state and have not challenged its legitimacy. Unsuccessful Afghan regimes have taken the opposite course, eschewing negotiation and favoring force in their dealings with local communities. This has provoked rebellions and insurgencies that have challenged both the national government’s legitimacy and its sovereignty.
This paper contends that stability in Afghanistan can best be achieved by giving priority to how Afghans, particularly rural Afghans, understand governance and giving them a greater role in it. The aspirations of the Afghan people for freedom, justice and prosperity cannot be fulfilled unless they are active participants in governance, not passive spectators or targets of government actions. In spite of heightened insecurity and limited opportunities, chances for success remain, because Afghans themselves remain hopeful and committed to building a better future for themselves and their children. Sixty-one percent of the Afghans surveyed in a recent poll expect their children to have a better life. This optimism holds true even though 95 percent of them (up 23 points since 2007) say official corruption is keeping the country from moving toward that end. These numbers make it clear that governance is the center of gravity for improving security in Afghanistan.
This is not a novel argument. As its military presence has expanded, the United States has recognized that security and stability require a solid foundation at the local level. However, U.S. policy makers currently find themselves at a loss to recommend solutions for problems in a land and culture they know so little about. We present 10 practical operational proposals that would increase the effectiveness and stability of the Afghan government at the local level. These proposals are designed to bypass existing roadblocks caused by “official corruption” and meet local expectations. None requires major changes in the organization of the Afghan government or undermines its authority. They support current U.S. and International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) efforts by making it clear to the Afghans that our objective is to bring about stability and security from the bottom up, rather than the top down. They also lay the groundwork for an effective integration of Taliban fighters whose concerns are local, rather than national and international. The current lack of local autonomy precludes reconciliation except by negotiations through a Kabul government that lacks credibility. This is a boon to Taliban leadership, which otherwise has little control over its local factions and fails to offer alternatives that can promise a peaceful and prosperous future for Afghanistan.
That Qandahar is not Kansas is self-evident. Any proposals for Afghan governance need to be grounded in a practical reality that the Afghan people take for granted. Here are five key cultural and political realities with which any policy recommendations need to be compatible.
Considering Afghanistan a failed or failing state because its government does not exert control over the whole country is misleading. Historically, the Afghan state’s physical control of a specific territory has never been a valid reference point in assessing its ability to govern. Instead, the stability of the government was judged by the ability of its leaders to balance their interests against local needs and priorities. Effective leaders leveraged their power by delegating authority to non-state mediators to resolve many diverse local and regional grievances on the government’s behalf in the most remote parts of the country. This allowed Kabul to preserve order and enhance its authority even in the absence of state institutions. It was a results-oriented system in which formal government institutions played a diminishing role the farther one was from the centers of state authority. Only when disputes that threatened the peace grew larger than local communities could handle, or threatened core state interests, did district or provincial government authorities see the need to intervene with state power.
This system was highly functional and grounded in local perceptions of fairness and trust. It crossed ethnic, linguistic and tribal boundaries with ease because it was in the interests of all parties to cooperate. It remains the dominant system today in rural Afghanistan, where people rarely depend on formal government institutions to regulate their local affairs. Recent reports, for example, show that the majority of all civil and criminal cases, assumed to be the legal property of the formal state judiciary, are instead adjudicated and settled outside of the government courthouses. In most cases, this occurs with the knowledge and participation of local government officials, particularly at the district level.1 According to these reports, such officials find informal methods of mediation and arbitration more effective and efficient for resolving local disputes than the formal court system of the government they serve.
This minimalist approach to government suited both Afghanistan’s rural residents and Kabul-appointed officials, who historically devoted themselves only to collecting taxes, conscripting soldiers and preventing banditry. Those regimes that did insist on imposing greater state authority generated insurgencies in opposition to them. In one case, that of Amir Abdur Rahman (1880-1901), the national state eventually prevailed and crushed its rivals. But more recent instances of state expansion under King Amanullah (1919-29) and the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) (1978-92) failed, and the national government collapsed. It was no accident that the “do-little” Musahiban dynasty, which fell between these two radical reforming eras, deliberately chose minimalism as its guiding policy. Despite its many weaknesses, this dynasty gave Afghanistan a half-century of peace — the longest in the country’s history — and maintained a functioning state structure throughout its existence.
The conclusion that may be drawn from Afghan history is this: communities in rural areas that resisted the government’s attempts to interfere in their affairs never rejected the need for governance. They just believed that their own informal institutions better maintained long-term local order than any distant government could. As significant, all communities in Afghanistan, even those most insistent on preserving their own autonomy, accepted the need for an Afghan government in Kabul that could take on the higher-level responsibilities that require a state structure. These include preserving internal security, protecting the country from hostile neighbors, and negotiating on the nation’s behalf for benefits from the larger international community. To be successful, all policy proposals need to consider which institutions are best designed to accomplish what tasks most effectively at which level. This produces a road map of alternatives quite different from those in the narrowly constructed Afghan Constitution of 2004, which vests all administrative authority in the Kabul government.
The practical implementation of any national policy depends on its effectiveness at the local level. A pragmatic national policy must therefore take into account local perceptions and give them serious attention. The view from Kabul is often received with suspicion by rural Afghans. Rather than seeing themselves as part of a single nation with common interests, their primary allegiance is to local solidarity groups based on kinship or locality. This is not surprising, given Afghanistan’s historically low levels of literacy, poor economic integration and weak state authority. It remains true in spite of the large-scale social and political disruptions that have occurred over the last three decades of conflict. Indeed, it was the absence or weakness of national authority during this period, not opposition to the state, that led people to reinforce their ties to local solidarity groups as a way to protect themselves. Even for the millions of Afghan refugees returning home from Pakistan, Iran and other parts of the world after 2001, security, employment opportunities and access to wealth demanded maintaining strong local ties.
This reality has been absent in the countless proposals and plans for good governance in Afghanistan generated at international conclaves in world capitals and in Afghanistan itself over the past decade. Most were well-intentioned but never seriously tackled the massive challenges of implementation at the district or provincial levels. Nor did they recognize the high political commitment that would be required to make them succeed. And no plan or strategy — however innovative — can succeed if it is impractical or the political will to implement it is absent. Greater attention must be directed at practical implementation issues such as effective collaboration among the stakeholders, aid-delivery structures and means to assess effectiveness. This requires a recognition that non-state systems of political authority and decision making have an important role to play in governance and need to be linked with the formal state structure. It also requires placing a greater emphasis on the parliament as a representative institution. A pragmatic national agenda can only evolve when the parliament offers an inclusive and collective national platform for local populations and their leaders. Better representation by legitimate local leaders serving in the national legislature would buttress both the authority of the national government collectively and create a national platform to hammer out policies through consensus building rather than presidential fiat.
Afghanistan’s rural population is currently estimated to constitute 75 percent of the country’s 30 million people. Before 1978, the percentage was even higher; the number of nomads and city dwellers was about a million each. Although war-induced urbanization and population growth dramatically increased the size of Afghanistan’s cities, the country still remains predominantly rural. (By contrast, 67 percent of Iraq’s 30 million people are urban, as are 68 percent in Iran and 36 percent in Pakistan.) More significant, much of the rural population was scattered across geographically peripheral areas of mountains, steppes and deserts that were not easy to reach. Their villages and nomad camps typically remained beyond the bounds of formal state control. Pre-modern Afghan rulers did not consider this a significant problem because the poverty of rural villagers in marginal locations made them unprofitable for the Afghan state to administer in any event. And in many areas, particularly those occupied by the Pashtuns bordering Pakistan’s autonomous tribal belt, the inhabitants were also armed and willing to resist encroachments by Kabul-based governments. As a result, Afghan state control was historically limited primarily to its irrigated agricultural plains and cities.
The ability of the Afghan state to penetrate rural areas and rule them directly expanded throughout the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. New roads and communication systems and a more powerful military increased the capacity of Kabul governments to project their authority, although the level of local autonomy remained much higher than in other counttries. In part, this was because Afghanistan avoided colonial rule and the state-building projects that transformed South Asia under the British and Central Asia under Russian rule. More important, Afghanistan’s economy remained largely subsistence-based and isolated from international trade, a condition conducive to preserving local autonomy. What degree of centralization Afghan governments had painfully achieved, however, was substantially eroded and then lost entirely as wars engulfed the country after 1978. By the 1990s, political power had devolved into the hands of regional militia commanders, some of whom provided reasonable governance while others failed completely.
The problematic history of state building in Afghanistan and its difficulties were not properly recognized in re-establishing the country’s national institutions after 2001. A one-size-fits-all constitution was a recipe for failure precisely because it did not accommodate the country’s historic diversity, a critical variable for any plan to implement models of governance there. Provinces and districts might look the same on a map, but Afghans knew that some were easier to rule than others. The administrative structure of the government took no account of these variations and lacked the flexible tools of governance necessary to succeed in areas of low population density with subsistence economies. To outsiders, the failures in these areas led to the false conclusion that all of Afghanistan was ungovernable. In fact, the restoration of formal government institutions was both necessary and feasible in Afghanistan’s cities and highly populated irrigated agricultural valleys that constituted the bulk of the population. How well they function and were configured was the key issue there.
The Afghan state traces its origins to the mid-eighteenth century, but the history of its component regions dates back to the Persian Empire of the sixth century BCE. No matter who ruled over them, Afghanistan’s regions retained distinct identities and played powerful political roles. Each was centered on a major city (South, Qandahar; West, Herat; North, Mazar; East/ Center, Kabul). Amirs in Kabul were forced to grant considerable autonomy to these regions and their governors, who were often rivals for national power. Over the past 120 years, national governments in Kabul increasingly subdivided the country into ever smaller and politically insignificant provinces to increase their own centrality and preeminence.2 But these regions could not be abolished just by redrawing maps, because they were so deeply embedded in Afghanistan’s history. When the country fell into civil war in the 1990s, the old political regions again emerged as significant units. (That these are the country’s more natural political and economic units is also apparent in their re-creation as the military coalition’s regional command centers.)
Afghanistan is such a diverse country that national planning has historically proved ineffective. Ministries in Kabul have rarely been able to cope with the complexities of the country. This did not use to matter because the government provided few services outside of Kabul or other major cities. This is no longer the case, but the paucity of skilled managers and the growing number of provinces makes it badly out of sync. More significant, it is necessary to build a fairer and mutually empowering relationship between national and local priorities, regardless of who is in command in Kabul. Such a change requires the participation of local actors in the implementation of a national agenda for security, development and governance so that they believe they have a stake in the process.
Critical to this shift of local perceptions is building trust in national institutions. In Afghanistan, such trust is built on a balanced equation of personal loyalty, blood relationships and positive outcomes from ongoing relationships. This equation suggests that the United States and donor nations need to rely on a formula that can be successfully completed before battle-space authority begins to be transferred to Afghan security forces at the end of summer 2011. This will set the stage for new mandates of U.S. engagement to secure and stabilize the path for Afghanistan to move forward in the years to come.
The counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan today is a military operation without a political front. It is hamstrung by widespread official corruption, political rifts between executive and legislative branches of the government, and the absence of a shared national political agenda. For this reason, delivering good governance, rather than “government in a box,” should be the goal of the ongoing counterinsurgency. (Even those people who seek better governance have little faith that the Kabul government can provide it.) The United States and the ISAF should, therefore, be less concerned with propping up unpopular officials appointed from Kabul and more concerned with meeting the security and economic needs of local populations that oppose both the return of the Taliban and hegemony from Kabul, particularly if it is backed by foreign troops. Their very presence in the heart of rural Afghanistan is destabilizing if they are seen as defenders of an unpopular Kabul regime rather than the local population. A balance needs to be struck between demonstrating a determination to invest in the long term and the ability to promise a rapid departure once the situation has stabilized.
The current political strategy of building up a powerful centralized government is counterproductive when it meets with powerful opposition in rural areas. This is a structural problem that would present difficulties even if the government in question were deemed both honest and competent. Attempting to expand a Kabul government by fiat only compounds the problem. Such a “government-centric” strategy often produces more rather than less conflict. An alternate approach that stresses a “governance-centric” strategy would recognize there are many ways to reach the goal of peace and political stability. It would give priority to reinforcing elements of self-rule at the local level and would reorient the national government’s focus to higher-level problems that are beyond the capacity of local communities to handle. This is not an approach that is fixed for all time. A government that succeeds at higher-order tasks would gain the credibility needed to extend its role in governance more broadly.
President Obama already scored high marks among Afghans when he said, “We have no interest in occupying your country.” This comment, while seemingly obvious to U.S. decision makers, could be the impetus for change, whereby a broad-based Afghan community of interest, including Karzai’s coalition partners, could emerge. This could also lead to a transparent and more robust integration of reconcilable Taliban into the current political process without compromising the post-9/11 achievements in Afghanistan. President Obama’s honest assessment of the U.S. role has set the direction for this mission for the first time in the last eight years. However, the United States and its allies can only achieve a turning point through a coordinated effort of both military and civilian forces on the ground that focuses on building trust and, as a consequence, stability. The 10 proposals below are a practical means to that end.
The scale of military operations in which the United States is now engaged must be matched by comparable civilian progress that has the capacity to create facts on the ground. We outline ten practical proposals that could achieve this end in a short time span. Although some of the changes may seem small, all are quite significant and even revolutionary in an Afghan context. While no one of them is a panacea, each would significantly improve Afghan governance so that it better meets the needs of its own people while increasing the legitimacy of its national government. These measures will also produce the higher levels of popular trust needed to ensure the country’s long-term stability and greater regional cooperation.
For ordinary Afghans, insecurity of all types is destabilizing and comes in many forms. They cannot be asked to oppose a Taliban insurgency until they can be convinced that stability will follow. Nor can they be asked to support a national Afghan government until it proves its own reliability. Much of what is described as insurgency is simple banditry and lawlessness that thrives in a power vacuum emboldened by official corruption. The police can only earn respect when they protect the population and do not extort it. Eliminating this risk would go a long way to securing popular support for the government countrywide. At the same time, the sense of impunity that has allowed the powerful to ignore the rule of law must be curbed. Removing the most notorious offenders may be politically difficult, but it is noteworthy that even weak and marginal figures have never faced any consequences. The international community should review how it supports such people through its own contracts. It is useless to talk of a rule of law without consequences.
Justice is the hallmark of any government, and corruption within the Afghan justice sector has severely overshadowed significant achievements gained so far. This failure has been offset by the long tradition of informal dispute resolution in Afghan communities. It seeks to find solutions to problems that will end a dispute, be seen as fair by the local community, and maintain communal peace. It does so by convening ad hoc assemblies to obtain a consensus that becomes binding for all participants. What is most distinctive about this system is its insistence on using community members or respected outsiders chosen by the disputants as fact finders and decision makers. Its strength and weakness lie in its reliance on mediation and arbitration to resolve problems. Failure to resolve serious problems, particularly those involving threats of bloodshed, prompts state intervention, something that encourages parties to compromise rather than escalate their disputes. For this reason, the state has always played an “over the horizon” role even when not overtly present. Strengthening these highly effective informal institutions will reduce the traffic jam within the Afghan state court system and also offer a positive competing alternative while offering the needed space for the Afghan government to clean house and develop professional cadres inspired by the Afghan constitution.
Although these informal institutions are the bedrock of local community governance, they are currently structurally invisible. They need to be viewed as the Afghan equivalent of civil society and treated accordingly. Government officials should seek their opinions in advance of implementing policy directives from Kabul. Their resolutions of disputes should have legal standing in the formal court system as long as they do not violate fundamental individual rights. They should not be asked to impose state law or to be used as agents of social change. (They only reflect community values; they do not have the authority to change them by diktat.) Because such bodies can only be effective when they retain their flexible ad hoc character, they will fail if they are made permanent, given appointed leaders or put on the government payroll. Provincial and district councils are no substitute for them; these formal bodies are service-driven innovations that have yet to establish roots in local communities.
Making governors responsible to their own populations gives them an incentive to think in longer terms and be concerned with how national policies will impact local areas. Local responsibility also creates greater diversity and reduces vulnerability to systemic failure. Giving such positions, term limits prevent the powerful from turning these offices into permanent sinecures, a fear that the recent presidential election did nothing to allay. Through local elections, governors and district administrators can be held responsible for failures and rewarded for their successes, increasing their own popularity and that of the national government. These elections would offer Afghanistan a constructive revolutionary development that enables both the national government and citizens to sign a new political contract essential to the fragile democracy in that country.
Currently, all but a few district and provincial-level appointees are seen as agents of the Karzai government who have no incentive to gain the support of the people they administer. For this reason, they have always constituted the weakest link in Afghan governance, one that has a long history of dysfunction. For more than a century, regimes in Kabul have appointed outsiders to such positions and rotated governors and district administrators regularly to prevent them from developing local ties. This made political sense when Afghanistan was ruled by kings and dictators. It is far less justifiable in a democracy, particularly at a time when modern communications allow people to witness alternative ways of life and good governance in other parts of the world. People rightly ask why they have the right to elect district and provincial councils, presidents and parliamentarians but are denied the right to select the governors and district administrators who have the most direct impact on their lives. More practically, the current system is a policy failure. Large-scale corruption and bad decision making are the inevitable by-products of a system in which a governor knows his time of service will be short and that he owes no responsibility to the people he governs. The national government’s reputation also suffers when the local population puts the blame on Kabul for abuses committed by its officials.
Looking to the future, making district and provincial governorships open to free competition would provide the safest form of power sharing with the Taliban. While non-Pashtuns are particularly opposed to granting Taliban a role in the national government, they have few objections to their serving in local positions if they are popular there. Those who come to hold such positions would have far less incentive to remain loyal to the Pakistan-based Taliban leadership, particularly its goal of seizing power nationwide, because it would conflict with their own local interests. Similarly, the need to deliver services and patronage to their own districts would increase their cooperation with Kabul and its international allies, which can provide such aid.
The centralized ministry system does not adequately serve the needs of people outside of Kabul because they have little access to it. A citizen of Afghanistan from Herat or Badakhshan should not be required to make a trip to a distant national capital in order to do ordinary business or seek redress of a grievance that should be solved locally. Access to government services could be greatly improved by the establishment of five or six satellite or branch ministries located in each region’s major city. This would bring ministry capacity closer to the many provincial offices as well as make more accessible services such as teacher certification now available only in Kabul. This would not require the devolution of authority, since the ministry branches would continue to report directly to their ministries in Kabul, but it would create a better understanding of each region’s needs, since many ministry officials would then be permanently based outside of Kabul.
International donors should agree to provide the initial setup cost of this new system. Supporting the establishment of regional ministry representation, and ensuring that their terms of reference and procedures are effective, would justify the investment. Ministries having the greatest role in delivering local services such as education, rural rehabilitation, public health and transportation should receive the highest priority. To facilitate the process, donors should plan to support only those ministries that are willing to establish regional offices and that serve an important regional function. They should not attempt to establish a national policy and force reluctant ministries to comply. Even if only one or two significant ministries took part, the improvement in governance would serve as a model for the rest.
By law and international agreements, only the national government can raise and spend tax revenue, although a partial exception was granted to municipalities — they can raise revenue but cannot spend it. For this reason, taxation has always been seen as exploitation. Money leaves the community but does not come back. Nothing would do more for the effectiveness of local government than to allow it to raise and spend tax revenue in a transparent manner for projects that are deemed locally important. At present, since all resources come from Kabul and are directed by national plans, local needs go unmet. Empowering provincial governors to take responsibility for meeting local needs with local resources would make those positions more effective. This can shift the negative attitude of the local population toward a more positive one.
Good governance requires that services be delivered in an effective manner and that the consumers of these services have some recourse when they are not delivered, or are delivered badly. If districts were responsible for recruiting staff, paying salaries and maintaining schools (even if the money continued to be provided by the Ministry of Education), there would be more accountability. Ministries in Kabul could devote their energies to developing national-level policies and administering the system as a whole. Over time, local taxation could replace dependency on payments from Kabul for local services.
Ministries in Kabul currently have complete power over their own employees at all levels, including appointments, salaries and performance evaluations. Following guidelines forwarded from Kabul is more important to its officials than their effectiveness. This method of management, rooted in a Soviet-style controlled centralization that began during the 1970s, blocks local innovation and provides no incentives to invest in human development at the provincial and district levels. It is a stovepipe administrative system that precludes local cooperation and accountability. A governor may be aware that schools are not functioning, but he has no power to dismiss the negligent official, who reports only to the Ministry of Education. Similarly, when a ministry fails to pay its local teachers, a governor is powerless to fix the situation.
Electricity, irrigation works in an arid land, and road building transform people’s lives. They make today so different from yesterday that people have a hard time imagining how they could have lived without them. Cell phones are a prime example of a new technology rapidly penetrating Afghan society in a profound way. Since time is short, all project planners should be asked whether they are merely improving what already exists or creating opportunities where none existed before. Education, of course, is a life transformer, but takes a long time to mature. Available electric power is immediate and profoundly transformative. Roads create new networks of trade and opportunity. New or expanded irrigation projects provide material benefits people will fight to keep. Understanding that the transformative offers something attractive and new — something the Taliban cannot compete with and cannot eliminate without alienating the population — should be a trump card, not an afterthought.
Regions are the natural planning units of Afghanistan because they are economically integrated and share common needs. They typically have similar cultural, language and ethnic heritages as well. Districts are superior to provinces as units of implementation because they are compact enough that officials there not only know what is going on, but can visit any part of their domain in one or two days. Provincial governors, by contrast, not only rarely leave their capitals, they can never expect to have the fine-grained knowledge of local affairs that district-level officials come to command. A more effective form of governance would reorganize Afghanistan on a regional framework based on the country’s major cities: Herat, Qandahar, Kabul, Jalalabad, Mazar-i-sherif and Qunduz. (The number is less important than the cohesion of the unit; one could also envision a central region without a major urban center for the Hazarajat or the separation of the Helmand valley from Qandahar.) This would allow services and infrastructure to be provided in a more cost-effective and coherent manner. Economic development and provision of services could be better tailored to local conditions and would be more sustainable than attempting to duplicate efforts in 34 provinces. It also would avoid the limitations of national planning that take place at too high a level to be effective. While existing governmental units should be respected, they should not stand as obstacles to more effective planning and administration.
Instead of seeking ways to augment an international “civilian surge,” Afghans should be attending schools in their own home regions in medicine, engineering, business and government to fill the country’s professional needs. The initial goal should be to have 10,000 graduates of such programs ready for hiring within five years. Job placement should be an integral part of the program designed to replace international staff as Afghan staff comes on line. Creating a civil-service academy that will train a new generation of government officials is of particular importance for a country that has so few qualified administrators. While such training has been recognized as critical in the security area (army and police), there has been no such program for the civilian side. Currently, Afghanistan relies far too heavily on NGOs and other foreign assistance to provide technical expertise that should be recruited from its own population. While such assistance was originally viewed as a stop-gap necessity, after nine years, few attempts have been made to address this problem.
Afghanistan’s civic space is the center of gravity for a popular struggle against insurgents, but neither the Kabul government nor its international allies have engaged the Afghan public on the role it should play in building the future of Afghanistan. Instead, insurgent groups have had free rein to influence the public space, creating a broad spectrum of fear and hopelessness designed to paralyze their opponents. An energized intra-Afghan national debate over issues aimed at bridging ethnic, linguistic and political rifts is a prerequisite for trust building. This can best be accomplished by creating a civic space in which genuine indigenous leaders can offer alternatives for the future of the country that are historically and culturally grounded. This debate should occur both at the state and non-state levels and engage the participation of respected government officials and civil-society, private-sector and religious leaders at the local and national levels. Taking back Afghanistan’s public space from the violent extremists, narco-politicians and corrupt officials is strategically significant for furthering the stability of Afghanistan as a nation. It offers effective counternarratives to the Taliban’s exploitation of religious and nationalistic themes to justify their use of violence against ordinary Afghan citizens and their public servants.
In Afghanistan, religion is the foundation of local spirituality. It enhances the inherent dignity and worth of every Afghan while supporting a collective sense of nationhood. Perhaps because its international allies are secular in their approach to government or unfamiliar with Afghan Islamic traditions, they have ceded religious discourse to the extremists. They have not tapped into the tremendous wealth of expertise that Afghans have readily available on how religion can preserve social stability and support good governance. Religion, particularly the teachings of Islamic Sufism, has long offered Afghans a system of private and public morality. These historical, cultural and spiritual traditions form a significant moral base for peace building and nonviolence, as it has accommodated communities for hundreds of years. Engaging all sectors of indigenous leadership in Afghanistan in an open civic space offers the country a pathway for recovery from the damage inflicted by years of government failure, war and insurgency.
Vested interests resist change in any country. For those who already hold power, sharing it with those who do not is never easy, even if that is the course to future stability. Those who favor continuing a top-down approach to state building are also bound to object that any devolution of power would destroy Afghanistan’s fragile government. We argue that, on the contrary, Afghanistan’s government remains fragile precisely because it goes against the grain of historical Afghan traditions of successful governance. In particular, by devolving authority to those best positioned to govern effectively (and giving them the tools they need), the current Afghan government will become more rather than less robust. Students of Afghan government will note that these recommendations primarily regard policy changes rather than law, or laws rather than constitutional authority. Indeed only the election of district and provisional governors confronts the current practice of President Karzai’s appointing all such officials. The Afghan constitution is unclear on whether this is a specific presidential power or whether the process could be changed by parliament. In any case, presidential discretion would be the better part of valor. The unpopularity of his provincial and district governor appointments has undermined support for his government and pays few political dividends. Allowing more flexibility on this point would help preserve the stability of the government in its current form and resist those who wish to rewrite the constitution entirely. Opening a debate by Afghans on how best to rule themselves should be welcomed, rather than feared.
1 See Tufts University, United States Institute of Peace, National Research Council, Educational Assessment Research Unit.
2 The administrative structure of today’s Afghanistan (with a dominant national center in Kabul and 34 weak provinces) is of fairly recent vintage. The expansion of the country’s sub-provincial districts to 398 in 2005 from 325 in 1978 follows a similar pattern but retained more internal cohesion than the provinces.
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