Much like any other country across the world, Afghanistan too contains many faultlines within its polity. A seemingly obvious consequence of the existence of such cleavages is their mobilization for political, or in specific electoral purposes, and Afghanistan has been no exception to this rule. However, in Afghanistan such mobilizations have created challenges for the unity of the polity as a whole, rendering the national stage open for constant international interference and domestic clashes.
Having been a battleground for conflicting global and regional rivalries for long, the location of Afghanistan as a ‘land bridge’ between Central and South Asia, and consequently to Europe, has meant that it has been a subject of international desire. From the colonization of the Indian subcontinent onwards, Afghanistan has featured as a territory that defined the territorial limits of the imperial ambitions of various powers from time-to-time. Where during the imperial era, Afghanistan became a ‘buffer state’ between the British and Tsarist empires, the Cold War era period saw this country becoming a battle ground for ‘hot war’ between the US and the former USSR. Circumstances, as they stand today, have done little to remove Afghanistan from the center of competing, and often conflicting, international interests.
Emanating from its critical geographical location has been the necessity to ensure that the regimes in Afghanistan are disposed in favor of competing international actors. For instance, the British were known to give monetary and material subsidies to the Emirs of Afghanistan to extract their support in keeping the Russians at bay. Similarly, the Cold War era saw Russian meddling in the internal affairs of Afghanistan to install regimes that were in sync with its requirements and ambitions, and which in response invited American support for those who could be cultivated to fight the Soviet presence. Presently too, Afghanistan finds itself embedded in regional and global geo-political rivalries as a theatre for physical and ideological battles, and which have as a result, deepened the internal fissures in a way that have come to affect to the unity of the country.
Where transnational pressures have impacted the conduct of domestic politics in Afghanistan, internally too the condition of democracy and the political institutional setup is far from inspiring. Domestically, as B.D. Hopkins notes, political rule in Afghanistan has been based on the pillars of royal lineage and tribal codes making institutional and social memory of involvement in politics a critical reference point for those wanting to seek political authority in this country. Its hand-held transformation into a democratic nation has only opened the political arena to more actors, but appeals to the political past remain common and so does mobilization along ethnic/tribal lines. Even the new actors who are trying to make their way onto the political platform have introduced little new in terms of agenda or reasons for mobilization. Ethnic differences and the attending social, political, economic and cultural competitions and conflicts that were seen in the past continue to animate the political action in the present.
The stilted evolution of democracy in Afghanistan has been further affected by the existence and proliferation of competing centers of power outside the scope of the constitution. Where the desire for decentralization is genuine, its absence has resulted in the emergence of parallel structures of governance that have sprung up in different parts of the country impacting the overall democratic structure in Afghanistan in an adverse manner. In fact, their presence undercuts the legitimacy and efficacy of those political institutions and processes that are the actual, mandated products of the law of the land (read as Constitution). Right from the establishment of private security forces and parallel administrative setups by the (former) warlords to the existence of ‘shadow’ governance mechanisms by the Taliban, there are many such competing centers of power that challenge the authority of those that are meant to be the legitimate bearers and enforcers of law and providers of services.
Parallel Structures of Governance in Afghanistan
The constitution of Afghanistan (2002) does not permit formation of political parties centered on exclusive sectarian claims that serve the interests of an ascriptively limited constituency. For all purposes, they are meant to demonstrate a cross-cutting character that can help create a common national political currency. In practice, however, parties and political representations are far from being ethnically neutral. In fact, the parties that exist and those that are formed are often found to be proponents of exclusive ethnic/sectarian claims.
While the existence of political parties even in a floundering democracy is not surprising, however there are two parties that make for an interesting case in Afghanistan – Jamiat-e-Islami and Jombesh-e Melli-ye Islami-ye Afghanistan. What makes these two parties peculiar in their nature is that they are more than just political organizations. They have not only put in place their own structures of governance that are parallel to and compete with those that are constitutionally mandated but they also have their own security (military) paraphernalia that makes these parties blur the fine line between political organization and government in a blatant manner.
Running the operations of what had once been a major Mujahideen party representing mostly the Tajik interest, Atta Mohammad Noor is the de-facto point of authority and source of governance in the northern region of Afghanistan. Operating majorly from the province of Balkh, of which Noor has been appointed as the governor, this party plays a primary role in the distribution of goods and services and its private army has often been at the forefront of providing security to the province. It is worth recalling here as an instance the role that Noor had played in dealing with the terror strike on the Indian consulate in Mazar-e-Sharif in 2016.
A similar parallel structure of governance has been erected by Abdul Rashid Dostum-led Jombesh-e Melli-ye Islami-ye Afghanistan. Pitching himself as the leader of Uzbek-Turkish constituency, particularly in province of Jowzan, Dostum has been known for maintaining hisprivate army whose tasks almost runs parallel to that of the Afghanistan National Army. Although integrated into the political system at the central level first as the Chairman Joint Chief of Staffs (of Afghanistan National Army) and currently as the first Vice President, Dostum has, however, not rescinded his parallel governance and security paraphernalia.
Coming to a more territorially encompassing and comprehensive presence of parallel governance structures are those run by the Taliban. The Afghan Taliban which seeks to establish an Islamic Emirate under its control harbors ambitions of political power that are more national in their nature. While their ethnic make-up and operational principles continue to be tilted towards a particular ethnic community, its intent is not restricted to presiding over them alone. Having had a majority of Afghanistan under its control between 1996 and 2001, the Taliban seeks to return to power and in full.
Maintaining its presence both through symbolic denominations and actual, physical sighting, the Taliban has assigned functionaries wielding various portfolios for all of the 34 provinces of Afghanistan. What in the commonplace terminology is ‘shadow structures of governance’ are, in fact, demonstrative of the tangible and intangible efforts it makes to create its actual and spectral presence across the country.
Need of the hour: Devolution of Power
The existence of multiple centers of power and parallel structures of governance in Afghanistan are demonstrative of many things at the same time. At one level, it indicates lack of effectiveness of the central government in ensuring penetration of its authority and acceptance of its overarching legitimacy across Afghanistan. At another level, it indicates the persistent clash of interest between the domestic constituencies of Afghanistan which believe that they will be best served by their respective leaders alone. The galvanization and constant greasing of such domestic differences by foreign powers have further aggravated the crisis of governance in Afghanistan.
Side-stepping the demand for decentralization of power in Afghanistan over a potential fear of its balkanization, the constitution of this country made it highly unitary in nature disregarding the decades of localized governance that has been prominent here. While the threat of balkanization or at least political fragmentation of Afghanistan was real at the time when the constitution was being drafted (and still is), centralization of governance has done little to maintain unity of governance across the country. Instead, the proliferation of parallel structures across the country have undermined the legitimacy of constitutionally mandated political rule in Afghanistan.
Demands for decentralization have been constantly made since the central government is both seen as qualitatively limited and ineffective in its scope. However, since the fear of fragmentation continues to loom large, it would be desirable to begin with devolving power in Afghanistan. This, of all the things, would ensure that those parallel structures that exist today are assimilated into processes and institutions put in place by the constitution. A by-product of this assimilation would be an automatic increase in the presence of legitimate governance across Afghanistan, which as of now are undercut by parallel structures. An overall increase in the presence of legitimate government could also check the spread of Taliban’s presence in the country which today is benefiting from the lack of governmental presence across Afghanistan.
For Afghanistan which stares at another military intervention led by foreign forces, it is essential that it gets its own house in order in order to make the most of what appears to be a final push in its fight against extremism and insurgency.