The Debate | Opinion

A Decentralized Government Is Not the Answer to Afghanistan’s Problems

In Afghanistan’s case, devolving power to local institutions will only encourage further jihadism designed to wring concessions from the state.

By Ajmal Burhanzoi for
A Decentralized Government Is Not the Answer to Afghanistan’s Problems

An Afghan National Army officer with the 215th Corps salutes passing troops during a ceremony commemorating the 94th anniversary of Afghanistan’s independence from Britain at Camp Shorabak, Helmand province, Afghanistan, Aug. 19, 2013.

Credit: DoD photo by Sgt. Tammy K. Hineline, U.S. Marine Corps

The recent political debacle between President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah over the presidential election results in Afghanistan has spurred an array of solutions and opinions from practitioners and scholars, all with the aim of preventing political instability in Afghanistan. In particular, in a recent Diplomat article Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili and Mohammad Qadam Shah argue for a reform of Afghanistan’s centralized political system. These proposed solutions and opinions came at the crux U.S.-Taliban negotiations, with the final peace deal signing set for February 29. Many analysts see the centralized model of governance led by Ghani as a potential spoiler for stability and a peace deal with Taliban. International politicians, practitioners, and scholars frequently urge the Afghan government to be responsive to the pressures and demands from the “very strong local political institutions” (as Murtazashvili and Shah put it) that formed during four decades of civil war. Proposals for “power-sharing mechanisms to ensure different groups are represented in the political system” are gaining sizable momentum.

However, for a state that is rising from the ashes of civil war to make concessions to the same individuals and groups who were responsible for starting the fire in the first place is nonsensical.

While it is ideal to have a political system that is sensitive to and inclusive of informal institutions and representative of the diversity of Afghans, the local and international efforts underway will perpetuate political instability. First, agreeing to power-sharing mechanisms rather than resisting the threat or actual use of force against the state will incentivize violence by caving into fearmongering. That is counterproductive not only for state-building efforts but for the state’s very survival. Second, the present political instability is not an outcome produced by the mere existence of a nominal centralized government in Kabul; instead, it is the result of de facto decentralized governance practices. All of Afghanistan’s post-Bonn governments were based on power-sharing, and history has taught us that power-sharing is not a remedy for the state’s ills. Third, the Afghan problem is not entirely a domestic problem. Afghanistan’s domestic affairs are immensely entangled with interests of outside actors in the region and beyond, and any solution without addressing these outside interests in the regional and international context is futile.

When the State Should Be the King: Jihadism Is Incongruent With Democratization

Calls for a broad-based and inclusive government through power-sharing seem anodyne. However, there are practical problems associated with this approach. Making concessions to individuals or groups who use or threaten the state with the use of force is the bane of state authority, legitimacy, and supremacy. This is especially true for a fragile and newly forming state like Afghanistan. At the bare minimum, the state is a compulsory apparatus that is the sole monopolizer of coercive capabilities in a country. This credential has existential value for the state, without this monopoly, a state is failing or failed.  When the state and its agents are challenged on their claim to this monopoly, reasserting their sole right to coercive force becomes their primary interest.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

The argument that power-sharing is essential to state-building and political stability in Afghanistan requires contextualization of the actors, informal institutions, and pressures the Afghan government is being asked to cater to. During the four decades of civil war, strong informal institutions have indeed formed. As the Afghan state reasserts its governance rights, these institutions become either complementary to or opposed to these efforts. It is common sense for any state to co-opt the complementary informal institutions and eliminate the opposing ones. The utilization of local shuras/jirgas by the national and international community for the planning and implementation of development projects is a telling example of the potential complementarity of informal institutions. The continuation of this institution does not challenge the supremacy of the state and its monopoly of coercion. However, some civil war-era institutions are militarized in nature and formed either because the state was absent – in the case of local armed groups formed to ensure the physical security of villagers and their property — or because the goals of the formal government institutions were not acceptable to some communities – in the case of jihadi groups.

The involvement of the West, especially that of the United States, from the start of the Afghan insurgency in late 1970s, through the Bonn Agreement, the National Unity Government, and now the negotiations with Taliban, has made jihad into a legitimate institution — an institution through which Afghans can contest and lay claim to some share of political power. To borrow from Hobbes, from the 1980s to present-day, life in Afghanistan has been one of “continual fear, and danger of violent death… poor, nasty, brutish, and short” because it has lacked a strong central government to eradicate all the other, nonstate armed actors. Any iteration of power-sharing – in essence, rewarding those who have fought or are fighting the Afghan government – is doomed and will cause further political instability.

The debate over state, governance, and legitimacy in Afghanistan is couched in the rhetoric of democracy. However, jihadism is not congruent with democracy and democratization. Jihadism or “going to the mountains” — amassing armed men, occupying governmental premises by force and threatening rebellion – as practiced by the anti-Soviet mujahideen is in no way amenable to democratic ideals, norms, and practices. And now the peace talks with Taliban and their pending deal with the United States would introduce the Taliban into the “licit” political arena, along with their culture of jihadism. There are reasons to believe that version 2.0 of jihadism would perhaps be more extreme than version 1.0. These individuals and groups are not democratically elected representatives engaged in advocacy for the aggregated preferences of their constituents. These are the continuation of the same forces that have always fought and toppled central governments in Afghanistan. Any slight reduction in their share of the pie prompts them to pressure the government with threat of armed rebellion.

The present debacle between Ghani and Abdullah is a recurring instance of jihadism 1.0: threatening to “go to the mountain” to force political concessions. In the meantime, the United States is hoping to convince Taliban to “climb down from the mountain.” This is in effect legitimizing jihad as an institution to make claims to power and get concessions from the government. Championing power-sharing, under these circumstances, is nothing more than advocacy for making concession to armed groups who rebel or threaten the government with rebellion.

If Ghani chooses to resist power-sharing it will perpetuate instability. However, if the aim of this resistance is to establish the Afghan government as the only entity that deploys physical force in the country then it might yield security and stability in the long run – providing that he triumphs. Victory without international support is impossible. Resisting jihadism and supporting the central government is the way forward if security and stability are the desired outcomes. Helping the Afghan government become the only entity that has the capabilities to use physical force is the only long-lasting solution.

De Facto Decentralized Governance Practices Have Led to Instability

It is a fallacy to consider that the issues we see in Afghanistan today are an outcome of the inefficiencies of the nominal central government rather than the de facto decentralized governance apparatus in place in Afghanistan. All post-Bonn governments were based on power-sharing and incentivizing actors based on their jihadist credentials. The post-Bonn Afghan governments might have been portrayed as centralized on paper; however, in reality the government could not assign or remove ministers, governors, and other public officials without very arduous negotiations with warlords/strongmen and power brokers in Kabul and at the local level. Most of the informal institutions were hijacked by strongmen and primed to benefit their particularistic interests at the expense of local populations. Only recently has the central government wrestled with national and local strongmen over appointments and dismissals, which is always met with fierce and at times militarized resistance. Atta Mohammad Noor’s removal from his governorship, Nizamuddin Qaisari’s fiasco, and the removal of the Foreign Ministry spokesperson are illustrative examples.

Solutions Without Consideration of Outside Interests Are Futile

Finally, Afghanistan’s domestic affairs are immensely entangled with the interests outside actors pursue in the country. Therefore, seeking a solution without addressing these outside interests and influences is futile. From its support for the mujahideen during their jihad against the Soviet occupation to the Bonn agreement, the peace talks with the Taliban, and now the pressure on Ghani to postpone his inauguration ceremony, the U.S.-led Western bloc has legitimized jihadism as an accepted institution through which armed actors can assert their demands for concessions from the Afghan government.

Both the mujahideen and Taliban found safe havens, coupled with political and financial support, in Pakistan. Afghanistan and Pakistan have been entangled in disputes over territory and water rights since 1947. Pakistan also sees it in its interest to be able to dictate to a weaker Afghan government over their economic exchanges and Afghanistan’s relations with India – Pakistan’s nemesis. Any lasting political stability in Afghanistan is dependent not only on solving internal issues but, at least, addressing these foundational issues with Pakistan, which incentivizes Pakistan to support insurgent groups against any Afghan government.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

How Do We Move Forward?

Now that the Afghan state is trying to reassert its dominance over the Afghan society, it must deal with the competing informal institutions that formed during decades of civil war. While the idea of transferring power to local institutions supports democratization, it is extremely problematic if these local institutions are dominated by jihadists. Jihadism poses existential threats to state-building efforts in the country, and power-sharing schemes not only legitimize this mode of contestation but also make democracy a farce for the Afghan populace. Any solution for lasting stability and peace in Afghanistan must include two components: a government that can actually control rogue violence and therefore has a monopoly over the use of force and tangible efforts to address the foundational disputes between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Ajmal Burhanzoi is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Political Science, University of Toronto.