Afghanistan and Federalism: The Road not Taken

Public debate about Afghanistan’s political future generally suffers from a lack of deeper historical perspective. Too often, this debate fails to extend beyond the late Cold War period. Soviet invasion and the proxy war that followed were transformative and negative influences on the country’s development. Millions of Afghans were displaced, much infrastructure was destroyed, and a terrible legacy of landmines was left, among other late Cold War impacts. Even so, Afghanistan’s troubled political history has many more layers than the Taliban and the US-Soviet contest.

The longer-term theme that matters more is Afghans’ longstanding resistance to a centralized state. For part of the twentieth century, the reign of King Zahir Shah provided some impulse toward centralization. The broader theme in the country’s political history, though, is resistance to centralized governance. Most Afghans continue to be suspicious of national governments in Kabul, especially with the effort to re-establish a highly centralized (or “unitary”) state since 2001.

Afghanistan would likely function much better under some kind of a federal political system, in which significant power is wielded at the provincial and local levels. There is a great paradox at play, which affects many countries, and not just Afghanistan. Although federal systems can lead to more unified and stable states, these systems are very difficult to sustain. Truth be told, federations require democracy. Beyond this general need, most experts argue that federations need particularly well-functioning, independent judiciaries, which sort out jurisdictional disputes between the central government and the smaller units (i.e. provinces, localities). Related to this is a strong broader respect for the rule of law. In practice, many federations have tended toward centralization without these key cultural and institutional safeguards.

It is clearly the case that Afghanistan is not yet very democratic, nor does it have the other basic requirements for a federal system of government. The Western backers of the present Afghan political system were right to encourage a centralized model. The road not taken (i.e. federalism) was a road that could not have been taken, given Afghanistan’s situation. That is unfortunate, because a decentralized model is well suited to the cultural and environmental realities that are contemporary Afghanistan.

*** Did you like what you read here? You might be interested in the new book by this blog’s author, Failed States: Realities, Risks, and Responses.

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