The U.S.-led coalition has tried to force install a Western-style uber-centralized government in Afghanistan that is anathema to centuries-old indigenous institutions and value systems – a misguided strategy that has served as nothing more than a recipe for instability.
Long overdue is a genuine attempt to leverage governing structures that have worked in the past to build a viable Afghan state for the future. However, the international community must first undergo a severe paradigm shift and change its attitude towards traditional tribal societies.
Afghanistan enjoyed 40 consecutive years of relative peace between the 1930s and the 1970s due in no small part to a decentralized type of rule that was ideally suited for an acephalous society.
Although during this period Afghanistan was technically considered a constitutional monarchy, in practice it resembled a loose confederation of interest groups in which legislative and judicial powers were pushed down to the local level.
The writ of the central government in Kabul was limited while dynastic loyalty and the tribal code acted as bonding agents that cemented ethnic, tribal and sectarian shards together, enabling Afghanistan’s distinctive “regulated anarchy”.
The end product was an informal Afghan-style democracy that was much more effective than what is nominally in place today.
Although traditional institutions have been dramatically degraded over the past three decades, the ones still in place today are quite effective. These formal and informal power structures are relatively distributed, vertically-structured and egalitarian in nature. Decisions are made based on consensus-building as opposed to orders handed down from a hierarchical command structure.
According to anthropologist M. Nazif Shahrani, the international community has failed to grasp Afghanistan’s underlying organizing principles. Shahrani claims the building blocks of Afghan governance are social solidarity units called qawms, which are tied together by family lineages, clans, tribes, sects and ethno-linguistic commonalities.
These local communities of interests have proven to be politically self-governing, economically self-sustaining and remarkably resilient. According to Shahrani:
It has survived despite the efforts of successive rulers and bureaucracies in Kabul to bring it within the strait-jacket of a modern nation-state, on the questionable assumption that the European construct of the nation-state was a summum bonum, a kind of political form of organization that is self-evident, a ‘natural’ culmination of all societies.
Afghanistan’s tribal and ethnic balance has been disturbed, system of local self-rule weakened and the aforementioned bonding agents destroyed over the past 30 years as a result of the U.S., Russia, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and their respective proxies using the country as a geopolitical chess piece.
To rectify the imbalance Thomas Barfield in a recent Foreign Affairs piece recommends devolving political authority to the local levels so Afghans can elect their own governors and raise local taxes to fund local services.
Such a proposition makes sense in light of the fact the dysfunction and corruption of the U.S.-backed Karzai regime has been a key factor in the reemergence of the Taliban.
The insurgency has fed off local grievances driven by lack of security, an inadequate system of justice and the central government’s inability to provide basic services, especially outside the urban centers.
In addition, President Karzai lacks political legitimacy in the eyes of many Afghans who perceive him as a Shah Shuja-like puppet propped by the U.S. who continues to win office via fraud-ridden elections.
Historically, even strong governments have been challenged to rule and adequately service the periphery – let alone a reprobate one. Congressman Dana Rohrabacher succinctly captured this sentiment during an interview I conducted with him last year:
“Zahir Shah was the king of Afghanistan for 40 years and was successful because he didn’t try to rule the entire country from Kabul. The King had a mandate from God – but he still let the people rule themselves locally.”
The core of the problem is the level of distrust “advanced” foreign colonizers and occupiers have held for what they perceive as archaic systems of administration, while viewing their own ideologies as the panacea of the age.
In their white paper on Afghan governance, Masood Karokhail and Susanne Schmeidl from swisspeace point out the inefficacy of high-minded efforts to “reform” indigenous political frameworks:
This zero-sum game approach to centre-periphery relations (with the centre being modern and desirable and the periphery [provinces] traditional, backwards, and undesirable), however, is rather unconstructive in state-building exercises in countries where tradition and traditional structures still matter a great deal to the local population.
Instead of bolstering respected and widely accepted political mechanisms the U.S. has undermined them by striking Faustian deals with local warlords and empowering strongmen over tribal leaders with more historic legitimacy in order to defeat the Taliban militarily.
However, as a result, the Americans are losing on the most critical front – the psychological battlefield – because, above all else, the current conflict is a war of perception. And continuing to fight a political war by relying too heavily on conventional force, while at the same time showing contempt for local customs, has only exacerbated the situation.
But instead of trying to combat the Taliban’s ideology the strategic focus should be on erecting a viable political alternative rooted in Afghan tradition that allows for a much greater degree of local autonomy. Respecting and restoring sacred tools of local governance will bring peace and stability to Afghanistan a lot sooner than night raids, drones and air strikes will.
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