Devolution for Afghanistan

by Nathan Hamm on 7/7/2004 · 2 comments

Oxblog’s Afghanistan correspondent’s latest dispatch argues against the strategy of creating a strong central government:

the main element of the proposed solution — strengthening Hamid Karzai and the central government against the regional commanders — I would argue is misguided. Instead, the U.S. and Afghan governments should demand disarmament and elections from all warlords, but (assuming the warlords win at least the first round of provincial elections) should also allow their regional governments to retain considerable powers. The U.N. and editorialists everywhere are right to propose expansion of ISAF, the international security force (now run by NATO) that has brought relative stability to Kabul. Its role, however, should not be to extend the authority of the central government, but rather to enforce the general disarmament program, to firmly moderate disputes between local commanders, and to defend journalists, political parties, and activists who lawfully challenge the interests of the dominant warlord. Western donors should encourage regional governors to respect human rights, follow the rule of law, and wean their farmers off poppy by rewarding those governors who do so with increased development assistance.

In an earlier dispatch, I briefly laid out my reasons for being wary of fostering a strong central government in Afghanistan. Here in more detail is my sense of current trends shaping Afghan politics, and the conclusions I draw from them. I’d welcome any comments from more knowledgeable souls who happen to be reading this.

Go check out the whole thing.

From all the Afghanistan books I’ve been reading lately, I’m inclined to agree. I hate to be a “throw up your hands in frustration” type of analyst, but the last few centuries of Afghan history don’t show a whole lot of precedent for a strong central government. That’s not to say we need to concede that Afghanistan will always be plagued by warlords. An decentralized government that institutionalizes the territorial boundaries and defines legal powers of regions seems to me to be a much more successful path for Afghanistan (the best example of this rarely successful structure is Switzerland, so quite a bit of tinkering would be needed).

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Nathan is the founder and Principal Analyst for Registan, which he launched in 2003. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan 2000-2001 and received his MA in Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington in 2007. Since 2007, he has worked full-time as an analyst, consulting with private and government clients on Central Asian affairs, specializing in how socio-cultural and political factors shape risks and opportunities and how organizations can adjust their strategic and operational plans to account for these variables. More information on Registan's services can be found here, and Nathan can be contacted via Twitter or email.

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praktike July 7, 2004 at 2:00 pm

I think this is about right, given that the only period of relative peace in recent memory was under the weak monarchy of Zahir Shah.

Have you read Barnett Rubin’s The Fragmentation of Afghanistan? One of the things he discusses is just how problematic it is to give coercive power to a regime that has not evolved naturally from internal forces — it leads to the kind of intense repression that we see in other parts of Central Asia and the Middle East. Throw in the ethnic and regional politics involved here, and I think you’ve got a strong case for a weak central government.

Nathan July 7, 2004 at 11:32 pm

I think this whole thing stabs at what I feel is at the heart of creating successful institutions. Success comes from institutionalizing existing practices and opening access to participation so that as many people as possible have a stake in the system.

Afghanistan sounds like it’s a place that’s never been too happy with a strong central government, so it seems silly to think that’s the solution (which gets into a whole discussion about the way white people with college degrees behave overseas in general…).

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