Afghan Federalism

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Oxblog argues against imposing a strong central government in Afghanistan:

Most Western news coverage of post-Taliban Afghanistan presumes something like the following narrative: The early failure of the American-led coalition to shore up the Kabul government of Hamid Karzai led to a renaissance of warlords throughout Afghanistan. The power of these regional military commanders and the weakness of the central government has led to all sorts of disasters: an increase in poppy cultivation, a rash of human rights abuses (especially against women), and a severe blow to the rule of law throughout the country. However, the U.S. is reluctant to antagonize the regional commanders, needing their cooperation in hunting down the remnants of the Taliban and Osama bin Laden. So the U.S. continues to wink at the warlords, leaving Karzai impotent to rule the country of which he is nominally President.

Most of this story is of course true. But the main element of the proposed solution—strengthening Hamid Karzai and the central government against the regional commanders—I would argue is misguided. Instead, the U.S. and Afghan governments should demand disarmament and elections from all warlords, but (assuming the warlords win at least the first round of provincial elections) should also allow their regional governments to retain considerable powers. The U.N. and editorialists everywhere are right to propose expansion of ISAF, the international security force (now run by NATO) that has brought relative stability to Kabul. Its role, however, should not be to extend the authority of the central government, but rather to enforce the general disarmament program, to firmly moderate disputes between local commanders, and to defend journalists, political parties, and activists who lawfully challenge the interests of the dominant warlord. Western donors should encourage regional governors to respect human rights, follow the rule of law, and wean their farmers off poppy by rewarding those governors who do so with increased development assistance.

A long and interesting discussion of the Afghan situation follows, culminating in this restatement of the decentralist thesis:

The main threat to Afghanistan right now is disintegration in a tide of ethnic insurgency. Many extremely intelligent people see this, and argue that we need to counter it by strengthening the powers of a multi-ethnic central government in Kabul. But it is extremely hard to guarantee that a government stays multi-ethnic, especially if one sincerely tries to add democracy into the mix… witness the contorted and at times catastrophic attempts to balance between Sunnis, Shias, and Maronites in Lebanon. The current dominance of Panjshiri Tajiks is unbearable to many Afghans; a Pushtun dominance following free and fair elections would only reverse the problem. I suggest that the best solution is to devolve a great deal of economic and political power to the provincial level—don't give the warlords a prize to fight over in Kabul!

[Via Eve Tushnet.]

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  1. One of my favorite quotes is once again relevant:

    “The Somalis are independent people unused to any sort of central government, unaccustomed to any form of direct taxation, and intensely suspicious of the foreigner, the white man, and the Christian. The only forms of national sport are raiding one’s neighbors camels, seizing his water supplies, and emasculating his males.”
    – John Gunther’s *Inside Africa*, 1952

  2. “…don’t give the warlords a prize to fight over in Kabul!”

    Amen to that. Also, substitute ‘pols’ for ‘warlords’ and ‘D.C.’ for ‘Kabul’, and I will say Amen to that too!

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