The obsession of the U.S. and its international partners with building a strong central state in Afghanistan at the expense of local, more informal, governing institutions is one of the reasons the state-building mission failed, leaving the country vulnerable to predation and abuse by corrupt officials and warlords. As a result, the Afghan government, even with its massive army, rests upon a flimsy foundation that is likely to implode once foreign donors turn off the spigot.
University of Pittsburgh Professor Jennifer Murtazashvili underscores the dilemma in a paper published ahead of her forthcoming book, Informal Order and the State in Afghanistan, wherein she makes a remarkable observation of local governance based on her own intensive research:
“[I]nformal systems of governance were actually more responsive [in Afghanistan] after 2001 than they had been in the past and… citizens had more confidence in them as governance organizations than the state for provision of many kinds of services,” Murtazashvili writes. “Citizens turned to them because they provided a bulwark of protection against an extractive state.”
In recent articles we have documented how U.S. development efforts have fueled instability in Afghanistan, yet Murtazashvili goes a level deeper in explaining this phenomenon, pointing out that the Western model overly focused on enhancing state capacity neglected healthy “constraints” on power that derive from decentralization.
Unfortunately, she argues, customary governance does not fit neatly into the modern capacity-building orthodoxy espoused by USAID and its partners. Besides, it was much more convenient for donors to pour aid through Afghanistan’s central bureaucracy and line ministries as a quick fix – a myopic path of least resistance that undermined the establishment of a legitimate and inclusive state in the long run.
In short, foreign aid directed through the government without preconditions left Afghan policymakers completely free of accountability. Meanwhile, most citizens were bereft any visibility or input into decisions on how billions of dollars were allocated, most of which never trickled down to those most in need.
The solution, according to Murtazashvili, lies in striking a balance that provides the Afghan state enough capacity to defeat insurgents with enough constraints to discourage officials from abusing power, but this requires a long-term focus and willingness to boost traditional Afghan subnational governing structures.
Of course, the U.S. had neither the time nor the will to even consider such an approach. Instead, they endeavored to rapidly install from the top down an occidental-style “government in a box” in every town and village cleared of insurgents.
Lucy Morgan Edwards, a former aid worker and UN election monitor, has long decried the short-term focus of USAID and other multilateral development agencies in Afghanistan because building local sustainable governance requires a long-term presence. Foreign aid may be necessary, Edwards claims, but it is never sufficient for establishing legitimate local governance. International action should be focused on “creating the space for local actors to start a conversation that will define and consolidate their polity by mediating their vision of a good life into responsive, robust and resilient institutions.”
Some argue that local governing mechanisms in Afghanistan have been decimated by four decades of war. Others claim, however, that they are the most effective institutions remaining but get overlooked by Western development agencies.
For example, according to anthropologist M. Nazif Shahrani, the international community has failed to grasp that the building blocks of Afghan governance are social solidarity units called qawms, which are tied together by family lineages, clans, tribes, sects and ethno-linguistic commonalities. Despite being politically self-governing, economically self-sustaining and remarkably resilient, the qawm – and similar traditional mechanisms – have been eschewed by the West.
“[The qawm] has survived despite the efforts of successive rulers and bureaucracies in Kabul to bring it within the strait-jacket of a modern nation-state, on the questionable assumption that the European construct of the nation-state was a summum bonum, a kind of political form of organization that is self-evident, a ‘natural’ culmination of all societies,” Shahrani explains.
It is also important to note that the weakening of tribal governance amid a dysfunctional central state left a void the Taliban filled with madrassa-centered alternatives, especially when it comes to administering justice. Hence, reinforcing legitimate local governing mechanisms can also serve to check the insurgency.
This is not to suggest that developing and modernizing Afghanistan is a fool’s errand and the entire country should go tribal. The reality is, tribal structures in certain regions of the country have indeed been dramatically weakened. Yet, the formal government in Kabul and its provincial appendages have proven weaker and more corrupt than their local informal counterparts. Hence, a hybrid approach may be in order that can bridge these two worlds.
Regardless, the international community and Afghan government should, at a minimum, avoid marginalizing these subnational governing mechanisms because they might be the best option available, especially in the rural areas. Moreover, these local customary institutions could help bolster the government’s foundation, thereby preventing the Afghan state, which is growing more fragile by the day, from collapsing.
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