Hope for Somalia?

Mogadishu, Somalia

Mogadishu in wilder days, prior to the African Union peacemaking mission. Photo credit: ctsnow (via Flickr, Creative Commons license).

Al-Shabab is in retreat. The country has a new president respected by many at home and abroad. Foreign donors are pledging significant new aid. Peace is taking hold in larger portions of the country. This is a season of hope in Somalia. Or, at least it seems that way to outside observers.

But what are Somalis envisioning for their future? Are ordinary people eager for a federal system held together by a Mogadishu-based central government? The new president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, has impressed Britain, America, and other key states with his rhetoric about a decentralized political system. No significant tasks have yet been completed on the path to a federal Somalia.

Like Afghanistan, Somalia does seem to be an appropriate candidate for shared power between local and national governments. Both countries have long histories marked by intense political loyalties rooted in local communities. Both countries have cultural foundations in pastoral lifeways.

In the case of war-ravaged Afghanistan, federalism is the road not taken. The Hamid Karzai era has been one of centralized political power, backed by foreign military might and international aid.

In Somalia, President Mohamud may yet prove skeptics wrong by pursuing and constructing a democratic federal system in this failed state. Developing a federal structure is hard, even in more favorable environments than Somalia. To succeed, federations need strong momentum in favor of democracy and the rule of law. And decentralized systems require particularly strong courts, in order to sort out power struggles between local governments and the central government.

Putting all of these challenges aside, it is still not clear that most Somalis want a modern state—federal or otherwise. Western governments, the African Union, and the UN may all desire a reconstructed Somali state. Perhaps most Somalis continue to see the modern state taking more than it gives. If that perception continues to hold sway at the grassroots level, maybe the latest state building effort in the Horn of Africa is just old wine in new wineskins. I welcome feedback from those on the ground in Somalia.

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Afghanistan, Pakistan, and NATO’s Departure

Rural Afghanistan

It is the small, rural places of Afghanistan that will ultimately shape the country’s long-term political future. The village of Istalif is pictured. Photo credit: AfghanistanMatters (via Flickr, Creative Commons license).

During his 2013 State of the Union address, President Obama announced that an additional 30,000 American soldiers will be leaving Afghanistan over the next year. This announcement drew big applause in the United States, but the more significant Af-Pak news on this new year is emergent support from Pakistan. As NATO – and particularly the United States – draws down combat operations in advance of a 2014 withdrawal deadline, progress in Afghanistan will increasingly depend on internal factors in the region. Pakistan’s new supportive orientation is a welcome development, but it may not be enough to overcome the difficult internal dynamics of Afghan society.

As is well understood in South Asia, but often forgotten in the West, Pakistani involvement in Afghanistan has been driven by its fear of geopolitical encirclement. India, not Pakistan’s failed state neighbor on the West, is the essential reference point in Pakistani foreign affairs. In an effort to stymie Indian influence on its flank, Pakistan began supporting militant Islamist groups in Afghanistan during the 1990s. This support – though changed after 2001 – continued over the last decade.

It now appears, though, that Pakistan’s military – which fundamentally controls the state’s foreign policy decision making – favors a change of course. The generals now appear willing to risk greater Indian influence in Afghanistan for the opportunity to promote lasting, comprehensive peace in their war-torn neighbor. It is shocking how few news outlets in the West have seized upon this development as a watershed. It appears that war fatigue has so consumed Western publics that this news no longer sells sufficiently.

So, if NATO’s eminent withdrawal is focusing minds in Islamabad, the same may not be true in Afghanistan. Here we turn to the internal dynamics that will be decisive in determining whether the country will go beyond state failure.

To say that Afghanistan is a “failed state” is misleading. This designation suggests that Afghanistan has a tradition of successful centralized government. While its history over the last few centuries has offered brief moments of more effective governance, Afghanistan lacks a clear sense of national identity and an historical experience that unites all of its peoples and places into a common governing structure. Piles of development aid cannot easily change a political culture that primarily looks to local political institutions for collective action. Worse, the present Afghan state is highly centralized, even as it is weak and ineffective in many parts of the country. Federalism – though more appropriate for Afghanistan – is not easily implemented.

Should we therefore be pessimistic or optimistic about Afghanistan’s fate after 2014? Where we stand right now, we should be a bit more optimistic, given the improved external environment for state building. Even so, we should not be shocked if this rugged, landlocked place is still struggling mightily a decade from now.

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.