Much like any other country across the world, Afghanistan contains many fault lines 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 long been a battleground for global and regional rivalries, 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 saw this country becoming a battleground 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 geopolitical rivalries as a theatre for physical and ideological battles, and which have as a result deepened the internal fissures in a way that has 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 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 the providers of services.
Parallel Structures of Governance
The constitution of Afghanistan (2002) does not permit the 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.
Having had a majority of Afghanistan under its control between 1996 and 2001, the Taliban seeks to return to power and in full.
While the existence of political parties even in a floundering democracy is not surprising, there are two parties in Afghanistan that make for an interesting case: Jamiat-e-Islami and Jombesh-e Melli-ye Islami-ye Afghanistan. What makes these two parties peculiar 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 Tajik interests, 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 governor, Jamiat-e-Islami 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 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 the Abdul Rashid Dostum-led Jombesh-e Melli-ye Islami-ye Afghanistan. Pitching himself as the leader of the Uzbek-Turkish constituency, particularly in province of Jowzan, Dostum has been known for maintaining his private army whose tasks almost run parallel to that of the Afghanistan National Army. Although integrated into the political system at the central level first as the Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff (of the 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, the Taliban’s 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 sightings, the Taliban has assigned functionaries wielding various portfolios for all of the 34 provinces of Afghanistan. What in commonplace terminology is “shadow structures of governance” are, in fact, demonstrative of the tangible and intangible efforts it makes while creating its actual and spectral presence across the country.
Devolution of Power
The existence of multiple centers of power and parallel structures of governance in Afghanistan is demonstrative of many things. At one level, it indicates the lack of effectiveness of the central government in ensuring the penetration of its authority and acceptance of its overarching legitimacy across Afghanistan. At another level, it indicates the persistent clash of interests 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 over a potential fear of Afghanistan’s balkanization, the constitution had made Afghanistan highly unitary in nature disregarding its decades of localized governance. While the threat of the balkanization or at least the political fragmentation of Afghanistan was real at the time 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 has undermined the legitimacy of constitutionally mandated political rule in Afghanistan.
Demands for decentralization are 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 is undercut by the 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 has benefited 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 so as to make the most of what appears to be a final push in its fight against extremism and insurgency.