war on the rocks

A Weak State, But a Strong Society in Afghanistan

February 27, 2018

One of the perks of being an Afghan Fulbright scholar in the United States is the easy access to ordinary American conversations. With New Yorkers, there are many stories to share. They remember 9/11 like a scene out of a horror movie — one written and directed in the desert oasis of Afghanistan, but screened on the streets of New York. When my friends from New York read about recent news in Afghanistan — a massacre on the streets of Kabul killing 95 people, or a Taliban ambush on the Intercontinental Hotel — they talk with passion and discuss with curiosity the causes and rationale behind this madness. They occasionally stop and ask me, “What do you think of all this?”

In Afghanistan, power and politics have evolved into instruments for maintaining the status quo, when efforts should be focused on fixing the state or fighting the Taliban and the Islamic State in the countryside. Our society takes so much pride in defeating the British imperialists and Soviet communists — and now in fighting global terrorists — yet we have never successfully broken the recurrent cycle of internal colonization and insecurity.

In the year before 9/11, my cousins and I served as private policemen of our extended family, though we were young boys. We grew up as security guards looking after our community, a service that a legitimate state should offer and provide to its citizens. Every night of the week my cousin, Tayeb, and I would go to the rooftop of our family house in Baghlan to watch for anything suspicious happening in the neighborhood. I would feel the same level of excitement any boy of my age might feel when going to Disneyland. Five years older than me, Tayeb would always play flute, hoping that his crush, the girl next door, would be listening. Deep in the sound of the flute, one could hear the pain and pity of an entire nation without a state.

This was not the first time stability had collapsed in Afghanistan and it would not be the last. Throughout history, kings and emirs have tried to impose social order from Kabul. While some have succeeded in bringing temporary stability, none have produced lasting, uninterrupted safety, peace, and security.

In the third year of World War II, my grandfather lived in a peaceful Afghanistan ruled by a monarchy. He was obedient to the Musahiban Dynasty (1929 to 1973), however, his primary loyalty was to the local social organization of the village, not to the royal family 200 miles away in Kabul. Today, scholars look back at the Musahiban era as a period of relative stability, but it would not be long before two powerfully disruptive ideologies — Marxism and Islamism — would infiltrate the country and end peaceful life in Afghanistan. To my grandfather, his small village in northeastern Afghanistan was home and it was safe. By contrast, in the city, the monarchy steadily lost control over rule of law. Kabul filled with foreign ideas and dangerous people, and suffered civil unrest and disobedience. At the root of this discontentment was the state’s inability to establish a sustainable order while still being flexible enough to reflect the collective ideals and changing needs and desires of the people.

The biggest mistake the 21st century state builders made was laying the bricks of the new Afghanistan state on the same foundations that have never worked in the past. The 2001 Bonn Agreement appointed an interim authority based on the 1964 constitution (parts of which were later included in 2004 constitution), and neglected the social need for a decentralized democratic government. Afghan participants of this conference put what Jennifer Murtazashvili called “new wine” into the “old bottles.” Proponents of this approach thought they could build a democracy on top of the same institutions previous emirs and kings had used to oppress. Unaware of the long-term consequences, their western partners inadvertently agreed to create a zero-sum game by centralizing governance, competition, and power in Kabul.

But Afghan society reaches far beyond the boundaries of Kabul to the provinces, villages, and communities that make up a diverse and resilient population. I was in my office in the spring of 2015 in Kabul when I got a call from my uncle. He wanted me to see if I knew someone who “knew someone” in the 400-bed hospital in Kabul who could help a battle-wounded Afghan soldier get the medical care he needed. I left my office and on the way reached out to a friend on the National Security Council for help. As the driver pushed the engine faster, I thought about those nights Tayeb and I spent policing our compound. Now, Tayeb was badly injured after the Taliban ambushed his convoy in Badakhshan province. I got up on top of the ambulance. Then I saw him. Tayeb was barely breathing. Though on the brink of death, he was trying so hard to appear brave, suppressing groans or any sign of pain. His final moments still haunt me. I took Tayeb home, holding his lifeless body and saying prayers “Inna Lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un” (“We belong to God and to him shall we return”).

In addition to the blood shed since 2001, gallons of ink have been spent writing strategies and plans, proposing theories and policies to win in Afghanistan. None have achieved their goal and Kabul is now a battleground. The state, for which Tayeb and so many other Afghans and Americans lost their lives, cannot even enforce traffic laws in Kabul, let alone provide good governance in the countryside where the Taliban, the Islamic State, and strongmen are preying on the local populations.

It is time for Afghanistan to become politically sustainable by decentralizing democracy outside of Kabul to the provinces. Afghanistan is currently one of the most centralized governments in the world, with the president appointing even district governors. A decentralized system of government in Afghanistan means the democratization of sub-national governance. Critics of this process use the justification that decentralization of an insecure and weak state will create a window for criminals and warlords to obtain political power. However, working for the Independent Directorate of Local Governance, I have seen endless streams of people coming from remote corners of the country to complain about their local government officials or to ask for more services. Decentralization gives those who reside in the country’s periphery the right to a system of self-government in which all sub-national government officials, including provincial and district governors, are elected by the population. In accordance with this system, provincial and district judges and attorneys are approved by provincial and district councils. Research suggests a major factor in Taliban’s resurgence is weak local governance. Therefore local democracy is a long-term and strategic solution to delegitimize the Taliban and mobilize the population around their own local governments.

In a recent statement, President Donald Trump said that his administration “will finish what we have to finish” in Afghanistan. Finishing the job will require the United States to embrace the realities of Afghanistan’s society by supporting a process whereby provincial administrations become democratic, accountable to the local communities they govern, and politically credible. This is possible if new changes are brought to Afghanistan’s constitution that designate greater autonomy to provincial administrations, which will disperse power beyond Kabul. Decentralization is the only path to a more legitimate and democratic Afghanistan that can withstand the Taliban and, hopefully, bring them to the negotiating table in good faith.


Abdul Waheed Ahmad (@awaafg) is an Afghan Fulbright scholar at the State University of New York-Binghamton. He previously worked with the Independent Directorate of Local Governance and Ministry of Interior in Afghanistan.

Image: U.S. Army/Staff Sgt. Shane Hamann