Local governance is usually treated as a secondary issue in Afghan politics, unless it is about unseating a strong provincial governor. The appointment of governors with strong affiliations to the capital has been a common practice since the 1880s in Afghanistan. The tension between the center and the periphery, Kabul and the provinces, is both historical and ethnic in nature, and the management of local governance has been a failure in the post-September 11 state-building process in Afghanistan.
Between the Periphery and the Center
Historically, the very establishment of a strong central government in the 1880s coincided with the collapse of peripheral governance and the decentralized form of power that had held sway Afghanistan. Scottish travel writer James Baillie Fraser, in his 1825 travel memoir, mentions that provinces such as Kabul, Balkh, Kandahar, and Herat had formed “distinct provinces or independent states” in the 19th century. Furthermore, former British intelligence officer Arthur Conolly in 1834 reported that Kabul had been the symbol of hegemony of Barakzai (the most powerful Pashto-speaking Durrani tribe in the 19th and 20th centuries) and it has been treated as sacred since overtaking the Sadozai dynasty (another Pashto-speaking Durrani tribe that replaced Persian rule in 1747) in Afghanistan. However, the peripheries and their power structures are reminders of Afghanistan’s multiethnic nature; the central Hazarajat provinces remind Kabul of the Hazara people; western and northern Afghanistan remind Kabul of the Tajiks (the main political rival of the Pashto-speaking elites) and other minorities such as Uzbeks, Turkmen, and Aymaqs. Each of these peripheral zones echoes distinct identities, histories, aspirations, and wills.
American anthropologist Jon W. Anderson in 1975 wrote that after King Abdur Rahman Khan in the 1880s launched heavy military attacks, provincial centers of power in northern, western, central, and eastern Afghanistan collapsed in favor of Barakzai rule. This was followed by the deliberate appointments of Durrani and Ghilzai Pashtuns as governors in non-Pashtun provinces to suppress potential uprisings against Kabul. This project was repeated once again under Mohammed Nadir Shah’s rule between 1929-1933. Additionally, American historian Benjamin Hopkins in 2008 argued that Islam, Pashto-speaking tribes, and the central government had been the core of British India’s approach to statebuilding in Afghanistan.
More recently, the Afghan Constitution of 1964 severely affected Kabul’s rivals by dividing four provinces into 26 pieces to more easily manage from the center. The Kabul government exercised its power over the periphery by classifying the provinces into first, second, and third degrees. That move increased the dependency of the provinces to the center and widened the gap between the public and the state in Afghanistan. A 67-year-old Afghan exile in Hamburg, Mr. Rezai, told me in an interview that the situation of state schools in Herat was so mediocre in the 1940s that his parents had to migrate to Kabul for him to complete his education. All ministries, important government offices, NGOs, and companies are located in Kabul, forcing people to think of Kabul as the only center of state power in Afghanistan.
After 9/11 and the U.S.-led war ousted the Taliban, most donor states and Western NGOs established their bases in Kabul, as it was relatively safe for foreigners. Consequently, billions of dollars of development aid that were allocated to rebuilding the state have been spent in recruiting, training, and equipping the army and police in Kabul; the provinces were largely forgotten. Notable exceptions include Herat, Balkh, and Nangarhar, which provide substantial national income through border tariffs and thus necessitated protection. But the U.S.-backed Kabul government made sure that provincial governors like Ismail Khan (ex-governor of Herat), Gul Agha Sherzai (ex-governor of Nangarhar), and Atta Mohammad Noor (ex-governor of Balkh) were unseated. Former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad wrote in his 2016 memoir The Envoy that during his time in Afghanistan he played a substantial part in weakening provincial centers of power.
The tension between the former governor of Balkh province, Atta Mohammad Noor, and the central government led by President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah highlights further efforts by the center to gain control in its relationship with the periphery, often by installing “yes men” loyalists in the provinces over local powerbrokers. The New York Times’ Mujib Mashal called Atta “the next U.S. headache” and, despite admitting the prosperity of Balkh under his leadership, criticizes him for ruling northern Afghanistan as a king. In an interview for TOLO News, a domestic news agency, Noor admits the Kabul government threatened that he would face the anger of the United States if he did not leave his post.
The appointment of “yes men” as governors contributed to worsening of the security situation in the provinces and created opportunities for the Taliban insurgency to move in. Researcher Ashley Jackson in 2018 reported that by 2012 a great majority of provinces were actually governed by the Taliban’s appointed shadow governors.
Not learning from its failures, Kabul’s policies led to more provinces becoming insecure and falling to the Taliban. The brief fall of Kunduz and the turn of events in Ghazni at the hands of the Taliban provide strong case studies of the impact of Kabul’s lack of will to reform its local governance policies. Today, Kabul can hardly exercise power beyond the capital city and a few relatively safe provinces in northern Afghanistan. Mocking the Kabul government’s policy of local governance in Afghanistan, German news agency Spiegel Online called former President Hamid Karzai “the mayor of Kabul.”
In all these years, the decentralization of power was not once considered as an option; instead, each strong governor was treated suspiciously and looked at as a danger to the Kabul government.
The Isolated Island of Kabul
Not just politically but culturally, Kabul throughout the 19th and 20th centuries developed as an isolated island in Afghanistan. Kabul hardly represents a model in culture or politics for the people of Afghanistan. It has been praised for its semi-secular, multiethnic, and urban culture from the 1940s to the 1970s, but that culture does not extend to many of the provinces. Kabul has been the center of transformation. While elites in Kabul have adopted the language of human rights and democracy, in the peripheries hardly anything else but Islam and tradition can be spoken of. While most foreign researchers base their fieldwork in Kabul, they come out with surprising conclusions that can hardly be generalized across Afghanistan.
Attention given to Kabul reminds us of how abandoned and forgotten the provinces are. People in Kabul have hardly any vision of what it is to live in a Kandahar village or the mountains and valleys of Badakhshan. As someone born in Kabul and raised in Ghazni, I find striking differences between the two provinces in terms of culture, religiosity, social structure, and politics. For instance, a bare-faced women without a burqa is not a sight that you will encounter in Ghazni, while the burqa is not often seen in the capital’s center. Even my Persian Ghazni accent is mistaken as a Hazaragi accent in Kabul, showing how unknowledgeable people in Kabul are about Afghanistan beyond Kabul’s borders.
To conclude, statebuilding in Afghanistan has always been about building a strong capital that can remotely control provinces through appointing loyal governors. This approach not only compromised the security of the provinces but widened the gap between the vast majority of the public and the state. Today, people hardly refer to governmental offices in provinces to solve their problems. They approach a council of elders or tribal elites to mediate among them on matters such as divorce, land disputes, and even murder and kidnappings.
A decentralized form of governance, where people could elect their governors, would strengthen the bond between the public and the state. Furthermore, a more decentralized form of governance creates ample opportunities for the flourishing of local cultures, languages, and development. A constitutional reform where power is fairly distributed between the capital and the periphery is the starting point in moving toward good governance. In the Netherlands, where I now live, not only do provinces have governments themselves, but even small municipalities are entitled to issue national passports, something expected of only the central government in Afghanistan.
Javeed Ahwar is currently a researcher at the University of Amsterdam and director of the Trans-Afghanistan Research and Education Center based in Utrecht, the Netherlands.