One of the key assumptions behind the Small Wars Tribal Engagement Workshop (from now on I’ll call it TEW 2010) is that there must be some sort of middle ground between national governance objectives and empowering local communities. Several people suggested connecting the two objectives at the district level—think of a more refined version of the district development teams Tom Johnson has advocated (only rather than atomizing PRTs, this would entail empowering current district-level Afghan power elites). Most of the participants though this could best be achieved by holding district elections—a key failure of the international community and Karzai administration, since they should have happened in 2005.
But holding district elections is not a simple matter of holding them. For one, we don’t know how many districts there are, or where their boundaries lie: depending on which official source one uses, official district areas can vary by hundreds of square miles, and there are also dozens of unofficial districts nation-wide, including the newly-created unofficial district of Marjah, Helmand (which did not exist as a separate political entity until January). A pretty fundamental first step in holding district elections is deciding how many elections need to be held, and where people will be able to vote.
But even more than a practical consideration of whether they are practical to hold is the question—again, generally left unasked—of whether districts are even the appropriate structures to work through. Constitutionally, the provincial governors are not responsible for their provinces per se, but for keeping the Minister of the Interior and Hamid Karzai happy. This creates a pretty obvious perverse incentive, whereby a governor legitimately representing the needs of his people—say, Tamim Nuristani complaining about civilian casualties from errant U.S. air strikes—can be summarily fired for embarrassing the wrong person in Kabul. The current structure of the constitution, in other words, creates a range of headaches. We’re learning years after its drafting that it wasn’t designed for functioning so much as the ease for VIPs to interact with their counterparts.
That being said, the constitution requires district elections. Not holding them is violating the Afghan constitution. It is one of many ways in which the constitution complicates our objectives for the country. Some TEW 2010 participants looked at these complications and suggested we scrap the constitution, dissolve the government, and start over. And such a solution seems very appealing, until again we consider just what the hell we’re trying to do.
Forgive the slightly disjointed nature of this discussion—this is not a simple problem to contemplate. The objective of both the U.S., EU, NATO, and ISAF is to empower the Afghan national government, creating a stable society that will no longer play haven to terrorists. We cannot reasonably achieve that goal by arbitrarily dissolving the government we created because we find it convenient to do so. Now, if we are to modify our objectives—for example, by reducing our pretensions merely to allowing us the space to punitively attack elements we feel pose threats to Western interests—that is possible… but until that happens, we have to keep our national and international objectives in mind (there’s also the pesky problem of what Afghans want, which all the data on hand indicate is a functioning government).
So if we are stuck with a government we can easily or justifiably dissolve, we must work through it. Again, holding district elections is a critical component here, but I part ways with the larger group in seeing empowering districts as the key to connecting the much-beloved local defense forces to the national government. Despite the insistence of everyone that LDI/CDI/AP3 groups are not militias, and neither are arbakai, I remain deeply suspicious of these groups. Despite the current practices that limit what these local defense groups can do, there remains a deep distrust of any non-government armed group.
In 2007, at least, strong majorities of Afghans express at least some confidence in the National Army (84%) and National Police (76%), with opinions marginally lower in Kandahar. In sharp contrast, only one in four (26%) express such confidence in the local militia in their area (which includes private security forces and local warlords). Opinions were consistent across ethnic groups in that survey, though more recently non-Pashtun groups have expressed stronger skepticism of the idea.
I question that it’s even a good idea to use district officials to “connect” local security forces to the government, since I question the widespread adoption of these local security forces. That being said, we live in a universe of path dependency, and these groups are being created and expanded regardless of whether or not they’re a good idea in the long run. So in that sense, district administrations could, conceivably, be set up as a check on individual local forces. I have no idea how to do that, however—it would require having both ANSF and Coalition forces in reserve as a QRF of sorts, essentially defending communities from both the Taliban and their own security forces. I don’t see that as a sustainable solution. (Though we do have successful examples of the ANSF, including the ANP, doing their jobs admirably, and we should be looking to replicate those successes instead of re-inventing the wheel.)
There’s also the larger conceptual question of whether districts are appropriate interfaces between the national government, as represented by provincial governors, and communities, as represented by… well, we don’t know yet. For starters, there are so many local/regional governance and representative bodies—ASOP, NSP, CDCs, and so on—that I don’t know what has responsibility for what, nor do I know how these communities will respond to having marginally functioning systems of local administration swept away for a U.S.-administered and nationally-run elective and administrative system (this is another downside the “districts first” crowd didn’t discuss to any detail).
To reference my previous post about the military’s crippling experientialism, while you don’t see much informed discussion of how government normally works in Afghanistan in pop histories, the media, or soldier and marine AARs, you do find it in academic literature and detailed histories. More amazingly, none of this is a secret—it is available, mostly for free, on the Internets, and it was out there many years ago.
José Oberson, for example, wrote a really interesting article (pdf) exploring the incorporation of social fracture into models governance:
Whether the imperfect success of religious politics the failure of Pashtun national politics are due to a balanced product of either their conceptual weakness or strength, respectively, is an open question. But the contribution of disjointing forces that result in an impression of deep-seated propensity for political and societal fragmentation may even account more for political events than other factors…
In Afghanistan, [a leader overcoming person-based politics by using religion] has been successfully activated in order to overcome tribal constraints and kin-based political economy with considerable success in the beginning, as waging jihads against non-Muslim invaders or the initial triumph of the Taliban movement have shown. Another historical example is a form of internal colonialism imposed on non-Pashtun communities gives evidence for this strategy.
Oberson, however, makes sure to caution that even the religious example is at best spotty and not-permanent (and I want to emphasize this again, since many TEW 2010 participants got it into their heads that we need to coopt or manage the influence of mullahs, which for a crowd of mostly-white Christians didn’t strike many as a guaranteed epic fail). For lack of a better term, Afghanistan’s politics are more or less permanently personal, and creating systemic or material solutions to personal problems will not be very effective. A second opinion here comes from Olivier Roy:
Th[e] Afghan identity is based on a common political culture which could be summarized as follows. ‘Real’ political life is played out at the local level and primary loyalty lies with a ‘solidarity group’, whatever its sociological basis…
What these local and ethnic networks and groups need is a distant but benevolent and legitimate state, regarded as a broker or an ally helping to establish a favourable local balance of power and influence. They also expect the state to deal with general services, education, health, transportation etc. The state is seen as a means of enhancing local status and power, and must therefore be effective, without being disruptive – and a state that bases itself on ideology, whether Communism, Islamic radicalism or ethnicity is a disruptive state.
This Afghan political culture has of course been shaken by over 20 years of war. In 1978 the new communist state was perceived as an enemy of the people, based on an alien ideology and working for an alien country. The revolt therefore took on an anti-state dimension.
The key point here, for the purposes of this specific discussion, is to avoid the state being seen as disruptive. And using district officials as a buffer between national representatives at the provincial level and local security forces is deeply disruptive. It might be more efficient in a theoretical sense, but it violates how these communities tend to entreaty the government for help, especially if we are creating local security groups and then neutering them with district officials before they can get to national administrative institutions. The other concern is government being seen as fair and representative that can serve as a broker—while the current structure of the provincial governments is not that, neither is the mere establishment of district elections.
So, in a way, the big question of what to do about districts can be answered simply: hold elections, but leave it at that. If the goal is to build up a massive and widespread local security apparatus, then it does not need district-level intermediators to manage their relationship with the government: that should be the job of the provincial officials, who then also command the ANSF elements responsible for the area. The elected district bodies can and should be responsible for representing individual villages and family concerns to the provincial governor, and for dispersing development money (mirroring the CDC method of handing out developmental assistance). In one way, this would be cribbing from the British idea of administering through political agents (another discussion, perhaps?), which does pose its own problems. But it seems like accomplishing the goal of connecting local initiatives to the national system of administration doesn’t need any help, it just needs barriers removed. We don’t have to be disruptive and reorder the entire district system to be effective at reducing space for insurgency while empowering local Afghan control, just incremental.