After signing an agreement with the Taliban, the United States has said it will begin withdrawing forces from Afghanistan. Beyond a reduction in American troop levels, it is still unclear what the agreement will accomplish.
The agreement sets the stage for intra-Afghan peace talks between the Taliban and the National Unity Government (NUG) in Kabul. However, with President Ashraf Ghani reluctant to release Taliban prisoners, a precondition for talks outlined in the U.S.-Taliban agreement, the next phase of conflict resolution is on shaky ground.
Meanwhile, Ghani was only recently declared the winner of last year’s presidential election, a ruling that is contested by his chief rival, Abdullah Abdullah, with whom Ghani has shared power within the extra-constitutional NUG since it was brokered in 2014. Even if Ghani’s victory was accepted outright, dismal voter turnout gave him less than a million votes in a country of over 35 million people.
It is banal to note that there are no easy answers for resolving Afghanistan’s four decades of conflict, but true nonetheless. Debate over solutions is therefore lively. In recent articles for The Diplomat, Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili and Mohammad Qadam Shah have argued for the decentralization of Afghan governance and Ajmal Burhanzoi has conversely critiqued the idea.
In Burhanzoi’s view, the idea of transferring power to local institutions is extremely problematic because they are dominated by jihadists who contest power through violence. He writes that, “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.”
And he is correct. Any power-sharing arrangement that only includes violent actors risks legitimizing violence as a means to power and does little to resolve the grievances at the heart of the conflict.
Bringing jihadists into shared governance will provide them opportunities to channel their violence into crime and patronage politics. This was the result of the early bargains Afghan President Hamid Karzai struck with prominent former warlords, including Gul Agha Shirzai and Ismail Khan, to ensure some semblance of stability.
Simply adding the Taliban to the fold of violent actors-turned-political figures would be a tragic outcome for Afghanistan. It may be better than open warfare between the Afghan government and the Taliban insurgency, but it is not good enough. However, Burhanzoi conflates Murtazashvili and Shah’s call for inclusive power-sharing mechanisms with the legitimization of jihadism as the route to power.
In her book, Informal Order and the State in Afghanistan, the informal governance structures that Murtazashvili studied across Afghan communities are not the institutions of jihadists. Burhanzoi does agree that some informal institutions can be complimentary to formal governance. He writes that 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.”
Murtazashvili, however, actually critiques both utilizations to varying degrees. On the national level, she essentially agrees with Burhanzoi that “[m]ost of the informal institutions were hijacked by strongmen and primed to benefit their particularistic interests at the expense of local populations.”
On the subnational level, she observed that the creation of donor-supported governance structures by the international community, including the World Bank-funded Community Development Councils, resulted at best in wasted resources and at worst led to unnecessary competition, undermining effective local governance.
Murtazashvili’s research found that customary governance served as a defense against both predatory state behavior and the violence of the insurgency. Customary governance in Afghanistan is rooted in tradition and religion, but it is also shaped by its interactions with the state and outside groups, producing informal rules and practices that structure contemporary social interactions.
Such informal governance performed best where Murtazashvili found several sources of local customary authority checking one another’s worst inclinations. Where balance did not exist between village leaders (maliks), village councils (shuras or jirgas), and religious arbiters (mullahs), she found violent actors more likely to consolidate power at the expense of security and the provision of public goods.
Informal local-level actors have demonstrated the ability to resolve disputes within and between communities, undertake projects like irrigation systems, and even build mosques. They cannot accomplish everything however. The provision of fundamental public goods like schools and roads are beyond their means.
In her book, Murtazashvili explains that the U.S.-led statebuilding approach in Afghanistan largely perceived customary organizations – the maliks, jirgas, and mullahs – to be antithetical to democratic values. Warlords and jihadists certainly are anti-democratic, but her research suggests that the norms of deliberation found among customary organizations support democratic norms. She argues that, “[r]ather than undermine cooperation with the state, the presence of customary organizations serves to facilitate cooperation with the state thus giving communities the ability to represent their interests to and bargain with the state.”
This is not the same as “the de facto decentralized governance apparatus” that Burhanzoi criticizes. The power-sharing Murtazashvili and Shah advocate for will not lead to the type of exclusive, violence-based power-sharing that enables the corruption of the state by strongmen and fuels the Taliban insurgency.
Afghanistan needs both a central government with a monopoly over the use of force, as Burhanzoi emphasizes, and the kind of redistributive constitutional reforms Murtazashvili and Shah call for that can increase the functional governing connectivity between the state and the “immense self-governance capabilities” found at the local-level. Neither need will be met by a peace process that only rewards armed factions.
As I argued in an article for The Diplomat last year, avoiding another iteration of the type of comprised power-sharing arrangement that Burhanzoi cautions against requires uplifting a broad set of moderate, majoritarian sources of political legitimacy in the peace process, including women and civil society, as well as customary leaders who have demonstrated resilient and positive informal governance.
Ian J.Lynch is an independent foreign policy analyst with a Masters in Middle East, Caucasus, and Central Asian Security Studies from the University of St Andrews in Scotland. He worked on the development of girls’ education programs in Afghanistan from 2013-2018. He tweets at @Ian_J_Lynch.