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Centralization Is at the Core of Afghanistan’s Problems 

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The Pulse | Politics | South Asia

Centralization Is at the Core of Afghanistan’s Problems 

Can the Taliban learn from history?

Centralization Is at the Core of Afghanistan’s Problems 
Credit: N Photo/Eric Kanalstein

After 20 years of state-building efforts by the international community, led by the United States, Afghanistan is experiencing yet another state collapse. The Afghan population is again overwhelmed by chaos and fear, facing an uncertain future. Thousands of terrified Afghans have rushed to Kabul’s international airport to desperately find a way out of Afghanistan. State-building efforts, which cost the international community billions of dollars, failed to achieve the core goal of creating an inclusive, democratic, pro-development, and stable Afghanistan. 

It’s the same goal that Afghanistan has been fighting to reach since its creation in 1747. 

The factors causing the current mess in Afghanistan, to name a few, would include incompatible political and economic institutions, corruption, ethnic conflict, foreign interventions, and a lack of political will. Most of these are interrelated (with foreign interventions a confounding variable), and suggest that institutions are the key to mitigate the challenges of good governance in Afghanistan. The international community, however, simply flooded funding into a centralized system in Afghanistan that was weak, corrupt, and unaccountable to Afghan citizens. 

In 2001, Afghanistan, after a long 30-year period of Soviet occupation, civil war, and Taliban rule, had the opportunity to lay the basis for an inclusive, democratic, pro-development, and stable Afghanistan. Instead, a centralized model of governance was favored by Western-educated Afghan technocrats and the international community.

Perhaps a brief history lesson would have caused the decision-makers of 2001 to take a different approach. The spectacular implosion of the Afghan government in 2021 is because its form was predicated on the same model that Afghanistan first adopted in 1880, with the financial and military support of the British Empire, which disrupted its earlier confederal form. This was the same model that resulted in the subjugation of various ethnic groups in Afghanistan. The same model that promoted a top-down, dictatorial governance approach, which consistently failed to improve local participation, democracy, and development. The same model that the Soviet Union (1950s-1989) favored, as it was closest to their Communist system. The same model that the Taliban (1996-2001) implemented during their brutal rule over Afghanistan. It is no surprise that the centralized government model has failed again. 

With the Taliban taking over, the main question becomes what will the new Afghan state look like? The Taliban must know that the Islamic Emirate, which at its core resembles a centralized model of governance, would not ensure a lasting peace in Afghanistan, nor can it facilitate the inclusive government that the Taliban now claim to be their goal. Given the multiplicity of ethnic, linguistic, and religious groups in Afghanistan, the next government must facilitate the inclusion and participation of all Afghan groups. Otherwise, the Taliban should expect reactions — such as recent protests and mobilization — from both society and the Afghan groups.  

Why Did Centralization Persist in Afghanistan? 

Afghanistan’s history is filled with numerous efforts toward peace and stability. Yet, the outcome time and again has been failure such that some scholars have described Afghanistan’s experiences as “try again, fail again, and fail better.” Except for the initial period between 1747 and 1880 when Afghanistan was a confederation of regions, all Afghan regimes have opted for a centralized model of governance in which the king or president assumes excessive political, fiscal, and administrative authority with no accountability to local populations. So far, Afghanistan has experienced a variety of regimes including a monarchy, a constitutional monarchy, presidential and semi-presidential systems, Communist and Islamic states. While the regimes changed in format, excessive centralization remained a key feature of these (failed) regimes. 

Afghanistan’s history shows that the centralized model of governance has consistently resulted in corruption, ethnic conflict, and a government unaccountable to all its citizens. While serving the interests of foreign powers and a few Afghan elites, centralization has undermined the will of the Afghan population and civil society. 

Foreign powers meddling in Afghan politics pursued their own goals. For instance, the British — by unifying Afghan regions into one single unit — used Afghanistan as a buffer zone against Russian expansion. The Soviet Union occupied Afghanistan in competition against the United States during the Cold War and attempted to Sovietize Afghanistan. Finally, the U.S. invaded Afghanistan for counterterrorism purposes and to secure its influence over the region. For all these foreign powers, centralization — which would provide a familiar unity of command — was the priority that was possible only through a centralized model of governance. The influence of these great powers turned Afghanistan into a rentier state that remained dependent on foreign aid and support. Afghan kings and presidents (and their narrow circle) remained the main beneficiaries of the state-building process in Afghanistan. 

Centralization Is the Core Problem of State-building in Afghanistan 

While centralization may benefit the state builders and small groups of individuals, it negatively impacts good governance outcomes. Afghanistan’s post-2001 governance system is quite illustrative. Afghanistan followed the suit of past regimes and adopted a highly centralized model of governance. Under this system, the president had more authority than a king and the constitution — through some ambiguous provisions — enabled the president to act unilaterally and surpass all existing check-and-balance mechanisms. The very visible effect of the post-2001 system was political and administrative corruption.

The simple definition of systemic corruption is monopoly of power plus discretion minus accountability. This definition has repeatedly matched the Afghan governance system. The centralized governance system monopolized power (political, fiscal, and administrative) into one executive branch — or simply the person of the president. The executive also had full discretion such that they could influence the legislative and judiciary branch immensely. The president could appoint ministers, governors, judges, police chiefs, and more at both central and local levels. At the same time, the executive did not have accountability to the legislative branch and the Afghan population. While the constitution did provide for checks and balances, the executive branch could easily manipulate them through their political influence via the tactical distribution of public funds. 

Another important flaw of the post-2001 system was its failure to accommodate Afghanistan’s numerous and varied ethnic groups. Although the 2004 Constitution recognized Afghan ethnic groups, the governance system it introduced failed to accommodate them. The very presidential system of governance, the president’s authority to appoint governors and many other local officials, the failure to hold elections for local councils, and more importantly, the incompatible electoral system for the parliament (single non-transferable voting system) together prevented the inclusion and participation of different ethnic groups in politics and governance in Afghanistan. The system basically introduced a zero-sum game for the many ethnic and political groups engaged in Afghan politics. In practice, presidential candidates who lose elections do not have any alternative venues to have power. Likewise, the system did not provide any opportunity for local leaders to engage in decision-making processes on issues related to them. Given the multiplicity of ethnicity, religions, and languages in Afghanistan, the centralized, presidential system exacerbated ethnic divisions. The presidential elections — especially, the last two — proved that a centralized, presidential system cannot accommodate Afghanistan’s ethnic groups.

The Taliban’s Approach to Governance: What Should They Learn From the Past?

All in all, the post-2001 system failed to create an inclusive, democratic, pro-development, and stable Afghanistan. While the Afghan government had many opportunities to reach a political settlement with the Taliban and other political groups, the recently ousted Afghan President Ashraf Ghani stubbornly insisted on keeping the status quo. Ghani knew he would be the first and main loser of any political settlement with the Taliban as he had no significant domestic popularity, and more importantly, the Taliban had repeatedly asked for his resignation. That is why Ghani decided to resist up until the moment he had to flee the country.

With the Taliban takeover, the obvious question now is what the next Afghan government will look like. In terms of their governance approach, the Taliban Constitution (1998) proposed an extremely centralized, Islamic system, headed by an “Amir-ul-Momineen” or leader of the faithful (supreme leader), who had ultimate authority over state affairs. That constitution did not specify the method of election and the term limit of the supreme leader. It only specified that the supreme leader must be male, Muslim, and a follower of the Hanafi school of jurisprudence. The supreme leader had the authority to form an Islamic council and handpick its members for legislation and policy implementation purposes. The supreme leader could also appoint the ministers and the head of ministers (a quasi-prime minister) that together comprised the government. Recently, the Taliban suggested that Afghanistan may be run through a council for which they provided no more details. 

Such an extreme centralization would undoubtedly result in the same outcome as previous regimes. Afghanistan’s history of many failed regimes and its social, political, and cultural realities show that an exclusive, top-down, dictatorial regime will not solve Afghanistan’s governance problem. Afghanistan’s problem is not technical, but political. Considering Afghanistan’s local conditions, the Taliban should, as they claim they would, open the door for other Afghan groups to engage in negotiations about the future of Afghanistan. Polycentric and power-sharing arrangements best fit Afghanistan’s realities. While centralization causes conflict, competition, disunity, and instability, polycentric and power-sharing arrangements can facilitate peace, cooperation, unity, and stability for Afghanistan. 

The United States was going leave Afghanistan sooner or later. Neither the U.S. nor the international community can afford to support Afghanistan forever, especially when the Afghan government is corrupt, ineffective, inefficient, and unaccountable. While Afghan groups, including the government and the Taliban, lost many opportunities to reach a political settlement, they still have the opportunity to do so. Afghans should sit together and decide about the future of Afghanistan. The Taliban, by themselves, cannot impose another top-down, dictatorial regime in the country — not effectively. Afghan elites and the population will not passively accept Taliban rule; they must be included in the governmental process at all levels. The recent protests in the capital, the mobilization of a resistance front in Panjshir, and the retaking a couple of districts in Baghlan province all indicate that Afghans who disagree with the Taliban will stand up and resist. 

The international community still bears responsibility to immediately encourage the Taliban, and various Afghan groups outside the Taliban, to constructively negotiate the future of Afghanistan. Given Afghanistan’s dependency on foreign aid, the international community has leverage to pressure the Taliban and other Afghan groups to focus on a political settlement. History has repeatedly demonstrated that the Afghan groups displaced and left with no voice of their own will not remain silent for long. Indeed, they and the Taliban will soon fall into conflict and possibly even civil war. Should the Taliban choose to ignore this lesson of history, they do so at their, and the people of Afghanistan’s, peril.