Tuesday, 18 August 2009

The Afghan President: King of (Only) His Castle?

Modern day Afghanistan is a loose conferedaration of tribes

The international media is giving due attention to the forthcoming Afghan Presidential elections.

On August 20 Afghani citizens will go to the polls in approximately 6,000 polling booths across the country to choose among 41 candidates for the Presidency. Insecurity fuelled by Taliban inspired violence has plagued these elections (see BBC video here).

Excuse me if I am slightly cynical about the elections. It is not that I doubt the intent and the impartiality of the polls.

But what exactly will the new President govern? The country has no bureaucratic infrastructure to implement any policies. The state apparatus has no revenue of its own and is almost entirely dependent on foreign sources to meet even basic operating costs.

A US Blackhawk helicopter flies near Kabul's Bagram Airbase

Security is primarily provided by foreign troops. It has been reported that the Taliban now operate a parallel judiciary in Kandahar, Afghanistan's second largest city.

If a road is being built then the work crew requires NATO protection and foreign aid money is paid to foreign contractors. Nevertheless, it is the local Afghanis receiving subsistence wages who must brave the Taliban threats to actually build the road - when they are not being kidnapped or killed.

The poor have no choice but to try and make a living. Joining the Taliban war machine or becoming opium farmers suddenly seems attractive.

An Afghani man carries some 'nan' in a city street

What are some options that are available to improve the complex situation in the battle scarred nation?

Afghanistan has never been a unitary state. It has been a confederation comprising the various tribes and ethnic groups that inhabit the region. The Pashtuns (aka Pathans or Pakhtuns), which straddle both sides of the Pak-Afghan border, are the largest single group.

King Ahmad Shah Durrani, who unified the various Afghan tribes in the 1700s

The Taliban is mainly a Pashtun organization. Since the Taliban regime was ousted in late 2001, the Northern Alliance movement, in alliance with the US, has effectively been in control of Kabul. The control has come largely at the expense of the Pashtuns. The Pashtuns form 42% of the Afghan population and the Tajiks 27%.

The international community must recognize the tribal nature of traditional Afghan society. It is the tribal structure that holds the key to minimizing Taliban violence and influence. It is a local form of democracy somewhat comparable to the Swiss cantonal approach.

The Pashtun tribes and their leaders must be supported politically through direct access to funds and development assistance.

Elders have a special place in Pashtun tribal culture

The tribal leaders are responsive to their own constituencies, members of their tribes. They have a vested interest in seeing roads, schools and markets built in their hamlets and villages. More importantly, if the tribes are consulted and included in the development process they will take ownership of the infrastructure, i.e. they will physically defend the improvements to their neighbourhood.

Central military force is important in the context of providing a security umbrella to the friendly and 'borderline' tribes. Military force effectively used will make the cost of joining the Taliban prohibitive. Becoming a Taliban fighter should not be seen as an easy way to earn a living by disaffected Pashtuns. Potential fighters must think twice and consider the price (death) before joining.

An ISAF soldier in an Afghan poppy field

But the primary weapon is negotiation. By using a combination of threats and bribes, the nominal loyalty of tribes can be weaned away from the Taliban.

There will always be an element of the Taliban who will not give up arms until either the foreigners have left or their austere version of Islamic law has been implemented. The impact of this extreme element on mainstream Afghan society can be minimized through social marginalization.

A second necessary condition is the inclusion of the Pashtuns in the Kabul political establishment. Since the fall of the Taliban an attempt has been made to placate Pashtun sensitivities by pointing to current President Hamid Karzai as their representative.

President Karzai with commanders of the NATO force in June 2009

Karzai has no natural tribal constituency. He spent the Soviet occupation years in exile in Quetta, Pakistan. His impotence as a guardian of Pashtun interests became clear when the first post Taliban era Afghan cabinet appointed Northern Alliance leaders to every key ministry.

The Pashtuns were marginalized and the effect was to strengthen their sympathies towards the Taliban.

NATO / US pressure on the Kabul elite to bring in key Pashtun leaders with important tribal constituencies into the regime will go a long way in reducing the pull of the Taliban. There are several members of the Taliban who are (or already have) renounced violence and joined the political mainstream. Some are even running for President in these elections.

Afghanistan is not a nation state in the same mould as European or Latin American nations. Even in the best of times, Afghanistan has been a loose confederation with some control exercised by political authorities in Kabul over the larger urban areas and road infrastructure. The loyalty and pacification of tribes through judicious use of cash and intimidation is what appears to have worked in the past.

To try and impose a 'top-down' unitary state structure is failure writ large. Instead, a return to the loose tribal based arrangement of the past is the best bet to restore stability to a nation destroyed by 30 years of fighting.

Women walk the streets in Parwan province, Afghanistan

But for now, the Presidential elections give the international community a reason to spend their generous budgets and NATO troops some ballot boxes to stop from being stuffed.

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