Afghanistan: Peace is in its Social Foundation

To the military pundits, the political analysts and the liberal sensationalists, it is maddening to suggest that peace to Afghanistan can be found by searching at the very fabric of its social composition. Afghanistan as we have come to know it is at best a much complicated ‘work in progress’ or as expressed more vividly; a land doomed to a perpetual war that is fueled by illicit drug trade.

Such a preconceived foundational belief does not account for the historical fact that in the last two and half millennium twenty five times various ruling dynasties ; the Greek, the Arabs, Turks, Persians, White Huns, Scythians, Parthians, Indians, three times the British, the Soviet Union and currently the United States and its allies have invaded this country. It is the last three Empires involvement in the last two centuries that have left the most devastating impact. While the British and Russians in their departure left the nation in social, economic and political catastrophe, it seems very likely that the US and its NATO allies are in the process of following their predecessors path.

Indeed, we are witnessing today an Afghanistan that is on the verge of erupting in inter-communal and intera-communal conflicts with a central government clueless to prevent despite its recent desperate rhetoric of ‘bringing peace at any cost’. Being positioned in such a geopolitical crossroad, Afghanistan has always been destined to be at the center of regional power struggle. With the advent of the Soviet invasion, this small Asian country became bigger than a piece in the regional power dynamics. Seldom it could have been taught, that it was destined to one day become a scramble for international intelligence. For this is the state of the affairs today: a growing insurgency that is mounting attacks at unprecedented level often at the behest of the intelligence agencies, a Western coalition in a desperate countdown to leave, an unprecedented consensus among the neighbors and regional power (Pakistan, Iran, Russia, China and India) on what future begets and a two-tier Afghan government incapable to even appoint a cabinet and oblivious to the current condition.

This alarmist call should not be misconstrued for pessimistic view for an inevitable reckoning. Surely anyone familiar with Afghanistan is aware of the fact that the treacherous history has developed most resilient character in a people that has overcome obstacles much greater. To understand how this nation has survived such a wretched history, we must look at its social foundation that has resisted debacles much greater. It is precisely in here that we can find the remedy for its current crisis. But to look at its social foundation, we must do away with the liberal prism and take an Afghanocentric approach.

The modern afghan state of the last two and half century has been an embodiment of its traditional upbringing. Despite its light experiment with economic modernization in the first part of the last century, it has remained a society in which ordinary people–and that means most people–do earn their daily bread by the sweat of their brow. It is still a vastly rural inhabited and the recent urbanization has not produced an urban social class. The populous power still lies in the countryside of this mountainous nation. And this rural region still functions on the basis of its traditional social structure and committed to its traditional values.

There is a scholarly consensus that while the rest of the world succumbed to two World Wars, Afghanistan endured a relatively peaceful half a century. Certainly the fact that from 1929-1978, Afghanistan was one of the most secure and peaceful countries in the heart of Asia was more to do with the fact of not being colonized like much of the rest of the Global South than being a non-aligned nation. This timely autonomy allowed Afghan authority to maintain peace and security both within the country, and with its neighbors. The Afghan state not only managed to avoid war with its neighbors but also internally Afghanistan was relatively free of mass atrocities and other forms of violence against its own citizens. This peace and stable governance was the norm all but until the country was invaded by the Soviet Union.

Credit for this era of peace and security is greatly due to the Afghan people’s strong traditions and rich social structure, which were integral parts of every Afghan’s daily life. There has been two forms of organizational power structure in Afghanistan; the formal and informal power structures which have historically subordinated and complimented each other. The formal organizational power structure was based on territorial layers of state administration; the Centre, the Provinces and the Sub-province which called (Markaz, Valayat and Volaswali). The informal organizational power structure and its relation with the people has never appeared on any administration chart but has been the foundation for a strong and effective mechanism that handled the relationship between the society and state.

From time immemorial, prominent elders from various ethnic groups would congregate in informal assemblies to discuss their social, religious, political and financial issues. Subsequently these informal gatherings developed into local and national assemblies recognized by the state at its creation. These organizational power structure called community committee (parish ), or Majles Kalan Hia Deh here-on to be referred to as Majles, existed in each and every village and their numbers remained to be more than 50,000 in modern Afghanistan between 1800 to 1979. Its origin goes back to millennium; much prior to what we have come to know as a nation-state with definite boundary.

The character of the Majles was framed in a communal basis. Regardless of the number of residence and the size of the village, each village had a committee composed of three permanent members:

  1. chief of village who was elected by the villagers through contested local election,
  2. Mullah or clergy of the village who was appointed by the chief of the village and chief of the tribe in the village

the chief of qhawm who was elected by the villagers to the Majlis.

The members of the committee met upon request either by the villagers or by the government on rather frequent basis. The meetings with the villagers consisted of debating events of the village and discussing government policies. In the Majlis, the conventions are held in a consociational democratic manner and if there is a conflict of interest, it is resolved at such a grassroots level. In this committee of three members each have a designated role that is comprised of such:

The mullah is responsible for the village’s educational curriculum and also dealing with civil disputes and minor criminal offences, often presiding as the judge.

The chief of the village has the executive role comprised of enforcement of the decisions taken by the Majlis as well as communicating with the government centres with the consent of the villagers on passing laws at the provincial or national levels.

The Chief of Qhawm has the duty bestowed upon by the discretionary power of the Majles to assist and facilitate the work of the central government apparatus; such as tax collection, labour recruitment for government projects, military service and intra-villages interaction in the area of water irrigation, grazing management, road construction, national security and implementation of various other public good projects. To coordinate work across particular field, the Majles forms smaller administrative units called Mir Abb, ordally, Mughtaseb and Jama Dar with broader informal job description. These units may set up to oversee the particular problems at operational level in the area of water management, security management and public relations. These units respectively have some appointed villagers to assist them for the implementation of water, security and communications activities. The units provide upon request, transparent reports to the Majles.

Since the central government is heavily dependent on agriculture tax revenue and free labor forces for its provincial and national expenditures which is mainly coming from the land owners and ordinary villagers, the central government maintains good relations with this informal organizational power structure as an economic and human resource “gateway”. Therefore, the central government’s approach is seldom from position of authority and rarely is there administrative interference in the affairs of the local communities directly. If the central government deems necessary to penetrate its power, the sound approach is initiating a dialogue through this informal organizational power structure. It becomes evident that throughout the history these informal organizational structure collectively had played a crucial role in the politics of the country and in many occasions were considered as “King Makers and King Breakers”.

This organization and relationship never appears on the official state administration charts, but to understand the functioning of power control in the country, it is important to study it very carefully. It is an independent organizational power structure, representing a form of grass root consensual and representational democracy. Thus, having said all that, one can argue that not only in the case of failing or failed states and the collapsed state this sort of informal organizational power structures are very vital, but also in case of relative functioning states, it helps the promotion and consolidation of democracy. Some of the core tenets of democracy are vividly present at this level such as participation, elections and volunteerism.

This informal structure is playing the function of a civil society. Being at the foundation of Afghan society means that it has never received the much needed recognition it receives. It is fundamentally different from the modern western oriented civil societies that operate within a stringent NGO industry framework. Therefore, the very term civil society has come to embody the last decades NGO industry in Afghanistan and seldom do we acknowledge that Afghanistan has had a strong vibrant civil society at its core that has operated in an informal structure.

The dynamics between the formal and informal structure of afghan society has functioned in a power distributive and power sharing mechanism. The power distribution mechanism could also be defined as “negotiated state” where the local informal organizational structure and formal state organizations are exercising a real power sharing in the country. In this model of power sharing neither informal nor formal organization had dominance over one another and both organizational authority were exerted in almost with equal weight to maintain peace and stability in the country.

Unfortunately, this traditional makeups, which dominated the social structure in Afghanistan, was dismantled by the Soviet invasion in 1979. The Kabul government under the Soviet advisement attacked the traditional local leaders so they could be replaced by ones loyal to the Soviet cause. At the same time, the local setting radically became under attack by the Mujahidin. The Mujahidin demanded an effective and constant leadership on the part of the military elements involved in the fighting. In the rural area the size and the scope of war and fighting against the Soviet Union was no longer a part-time job to be done by the traditional local leaders at one’s own convenience, but required a full-time commitment. As the demand could not be fulfilled by the traditional clan elders, consequently the role of clan’s leaders was weakened by strong Mujahedin military commanders. These Mujahedin commanders, who were typically mid-level commanders or warlords, soon began to dominate local populations with their military conquests3.

When the last Soviet troops left Afghanistan in February 1989, President Dr. Najibullah formalized a peace building and national reconciliation policy that largely was focusing to deal with those military commanders. In Dr. Najib’s well known peace initiative focused on the weighted role of prominent traditional leaders for the traditional conflict resolution/management. The initiative however led to further fragmentation of the society and the Kabul government only had managed to build a short term patrimonialist relation. The peace-building and national reconciliation policy led to further proliferate the sectarian and ethnic divisions within the regime as well as within the resistance groups that ultimately resulted in localization of political, military and economic power in the hands of war entrepreneurs. The general breakdown of state in 1979 through to the 1980s encouraged many local groups to assert their independence. This political and military localization made both the regime and the Mujaheddin resistance disinterested to any sort of reconciliation or compromise.

Fragmented Mujaheddin faction assumed power following the collapse of the communist regime and state-building was further subjugated due to the general lack of modern and traditional institutional capacity. Afghanistan had no historical record of being controlled or run by religious leaders. The formation of the Islamic state during the 1990s, by clergies, was an unusual practice in the country. With no experience, it is not surprising that these Islamic parties and their leaders were not familiar with the ingredients needed for an Islamic state’s policies or practices. The most important ingredient missing in the Mujaheddin efforts in state-building was the ignorance of the traditional and lack of foundational bureaucratic capacities. However, to maintain power, rather than build capacity these desperate political leaders again relied on ethno-linguistic differences to divide, distract, and manipulate civilians.

Similarly, since 2001, after the fall of the Taliban regime, the state-building efforts in Afghanistan are proving to be a more complicated task than was originally expected. In the debate about peace-building and state-building practices in Afghanistan, amongst experts, analysts, and commentators, there are theoretical and operational disagreements regarding key issues. Some analysts argue that the present Afghan government cannot extend its judicial writ beyond Kabul and is dependent heavily upon North American Treaty Organization (NATO) forces for defense. In the words of Malou Innocent; powerful patronage networks in Kabul’s administration have factionalized the Afghan National civil services, and reduced the effectiveness of public services. For instance, in an interview a veteran Afghan security official stated: “People in the army and police are fighting for their factions, not the country.”

In the absence of central control, the government of Afghanistan remains only in name an authority. Therefore, practically and by definition ; the inability to produce durable instrument of surveillance, provide basic welfare services, failure to provide resources, and lack of a social contract, are examples of ill-functioning state and this characterizes the situation in Afghanistan. An Oxfam survey in 2008 in Afghanistan has revealed that the vast majority of Afghans problems have local causes, and more than 55% people turn to local informal institutions such as Jirga or Shura to resolve their problems. Oxfam also confirms that little work has been done with local institutions to enhance their capabilities to promote peace. Peace initiatives at community level strengthen community cohesion, reduce violence, and enhance resistance to militants.

The Oxfam findings support the argument that the gap between liberal agenda and feasibility on the ground in Afghanistan can be filled by hiring the traditional mechanism for success to build the state. With all think-tanks, scholars, and political pundits focused on finding peace within a liberal discourse and have hitherto failed , it is perhaps necessary to look at informal Afghan social structure that is founded on dialogue, peace, and power-sharing. The image that currently resonates with Afghanistan is one of War and Terror, it is necessary to be reminded that such imagery is the product of the last 3 decades whereas Afghanistan has been a nation state in a relative peace for over two centuries.

Mohammad Dawod / Suhrob Ahmad

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