co-authored by Mohammad Dawod and Suhrob Ahmad
originally published at http://www.ibmag.nl
Afghanistan as we have come to know it is at best a complicated ‘work in progress’ or as expressed by some others as a land doomed to a perpetual war, fueled by illicit drug trade. Such a preconceived foundational belief does not account for the historical fact that in the last two and half millennia, twenty five times empires and occupiers have invaded Afghanistan: the Greek, the Arabs, the Turks, the Persians, the White Huns, the Scythians, the Parthians, the Mogul Indians, the British, the Soviet Union and currently the United States and its allies. It is the last three Empires’ involvement in the last two centuries that have left the most devastating impact on the country. While the British and Russians on their departure left the nation in social, economic and political catastrophe, it seems 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 suffering from intercommunal and intra-communal conflicts with a central government clueless to prevent this, despite its recent desperate rhetoric of ‘bringing peace at any cost’. Being positioned at geopolitical crossroads, Afghanistan has always been destined to be at the center of regional power struggles. With the Soviet invasion, this Asian country turned from a piece in the regional power dynamics into the subject of a scramble for international intelligence. For this is the state of affairs today: a growing insurgency that is mounting attacks at an unprecedented level often at the behest of the intelligence agencies, a Western coalition in a desperate countdown to leave, an unprecedented consensus among the neighbours and regional powers (Pakistan, Iran, Russia, China and India) on what lies ahead for the future and a two-tier Afghan government oblivious to the current condition.
This alarmist call should not be misunderstood for a pessimistic view for an inevitable reckoning. Surely anyone familiar with Afghanistan is aware of the fact that the treacherous history has developed a 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 tragedies 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 centuries has been an embodiment of its traditional evolution. Despite its light experiment with economic modernization in the first part of the twentieth century, it has remained a society in which ordinary people earn their daily bread by the sweat of their brow. It is still a vastly rural inhabited country and the recent urbanization has not produced an urban social class. The nation’s power still lies in the countryside of this mountainous country. And this hugely rural region still functions on the basis of its traditional social structures and is still 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 had 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 the Afghan authorities to maintain peace and security both within the country, and with its neighbours. The main reason for this relative peace was the general consensus among the Soviet Union and United States to keep Afghanistan a ‘buffer zone’ without interference from either of the two world superpowers; similar to the agreement of the British Empire and Czar of Russia in the previous century. This peace and stable governance was the norm all but until the country was invaded by the Soviet Union.
It is not solely the external power dynamics that is responsible for the relative peace that Afghanistan experienced between 1929-1979. Credit for this era of internal 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. Only by analyzing the tradition and social structure of Afghanistan, are we able to see if peace in Afghanistan is a dream. In these 60 years of internal peace, we can find ingredients to apply in today’s conflict-ridden society.
There have 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; theMarkaz (center), Valayat (the provinces) andVolaswali (the sub- province). 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 were called Majles Kalan Hia Deh (community committees) here-on to be referred to as Majles. They existed in each and every village; their numbers were over 50,000 between 1800 to 1979. Its origin goes back to the pre-Islamic era; much prior to what we have come to know as a nation-state with definite boundary.
The character of the Majles was framed on a communal basis. Regardless of the number of residents and the size of the village, each village had a committee composed of three permanent members:
- Arbab Ghariya who (chief of village) was elected by the villagers through contested local election,
- Mullah or a member of the clergy of the village, who was appointed by the chief of the village and chief of the tribe in the village
- Sar Ghawm (the chief of community) 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 a 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 this grassroots level. In this committee of three members each have a designated role.
The Mullah is responsible for the village’s educational curriculum and also deals with civil disputes and minor criminal offenses, 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 centers with the consent of the villagers on passing laws at the provincial or national levels. The chief of Ghawm has the duty bestowed upon by the discretionary power of the Majlis to assist and facilitate the work of the central government apparatus. This includes 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 fields, the Majles forms smaller administrative units called Mirabb(water administrator), Ordally (voluntary law enforcer), Mughtaseb (moral preacher) and Jamadar (recruitment officer for central government) with broader informal job descriptions. These units oversee the particular problems at the 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 theMajles.
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. Therefore, the central government maintains good relations with this informal organizational power structure as an economic and human resource “gateway”. The central government’s approach is seldom from a position of authority and rarely is there administrative interference in the affairs of the local communities directly. When the central government deems it 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 structures collectively have 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 grassroots 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 these sort of informal organizational power structures are vital, but also in case of relative functioning states, as it helps the promotion and consolidation of existing order. Some of the core tenets of democracy are vividly present at this level such as participation, elections and volunteerism.
This informal structure is functioning as 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 in the last decades the 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 sharing power in the country. In this model of power sharing neither informal nor formal organization had dominance over one another and both organizational authorities were exerted almost with equal weight to maintain peace and stability in the country.
Unfortunately, these traditional makeups, which dominated the social structure in Afghanistan, were dismantled by the Soviet invasion in 1979. The Kabul government under the Soviet advisement attacked the traditional local leaders in order to replace them with modern technocrats with the ambition of massive modernization and power centralization. At the same time, the local setting radically came under attack by the Mujahidin. The Mujahidin demanded an effective leadership on the part of the military elements involved in the fighting. In the rural area 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. TheMajlis and the power dynamics within it were disrupted by both the communist government in Kabul and the Mujahidin. In pursuit of modernization and land re-distribution, the central government undermined the power of the Sar Ghawm and Arbab De (community leader, chief of village). The Mullahs who were also victim of the secularization policy turned to the Mujahidin and gained immediate power as preachers of Jihad against the communist government and Soviet occupiers. The traditional clan elders have historically exerted autonomy and could not function under growing Mujahidin influence in the rural area. Consequently the role of clan’s leaders was weakened by strong Mujahedin military commanders. These Mujahedin commanders, who were typically mid-level commanders, soon began to dominate local populations with their military conquests.
When the last Soviet troops left Afghanistan in February 1989, President Mohammed Najibullah (also called Dr. Najib) formalized a peace building and national reconciliation policy that largely was focusing on dealing with those military commanders. Dr. Najib’s, well-known peace initiative focused on the weighted role of prominent traditional leaders for traditional conflict resolution/management. In other words, Dr Najib’s reconciliation policy was to re-instate the traditional power structures and empower Sar Ghawm (the chief of community) and Arbab De (chief of village) that have for the last decade been neglected or subdued. The initiative however led to further fragmentation of the society as the Mullahs and Mujahiddin commanders who had gained immense power in the rural area were not ready to give their power back to the Majlis. Hence, the Kabul government only managed to build a short term patrimonialist relation with its rural constituency.
Moreover, The peace-building and national reconciliation policy led to further proliferate the sectarian and ethnic divisions, resulting in localization of political, military and economic power in the hands of war entrepreneurs and Mullahs. The general breakdown of the 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 Mujahedin resistance disinterested to any sort of reconciliation or compromise.
Fragmented Mujahedin factions 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 clergy, 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 Mujahedin’s 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 amongst experts, analysts, and commentators about peace-building and state building practices in Afghanistan, 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
Practically and by definition; the inability to produce durable instruments of surveillance, provide basic welfare services, failure to provide resources, and lack of a social contract with the traditional rural power structures, are examples of ill-functioning state and this characterizes the situation in Afghanistan. An Oxfam survey in Afghanistan has revealed that the vast majority of the Afghans problems have local causes, and more than 55% of the people turn to local informal institutions such as the Jirga (local assembly) orShura (local council) 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 the community level strengthen community cohesion, reduce violence, and enhance resistance to militants.
To the military pundits, the political analysts and the liberal sensationalists, it is maddening to suggest that peace in Afghanistan can be found by searching the very fabric of its social composition. The Oxfam findings support the argument that the gap between the 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 focusing on finding peace within a liberal discourse and having hitherto failed, it is perhaps necessary to look at the 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.
- George Arney “Afghanistan: The definitive account of a country at crossroad” Michelin House, 81 Fulham Road (1990)
- Simon Chambers and Willy Kymlicka, Alternative Conception of Civil Society, Princeton University Press (2002).
- Charles Tilly, “War Making and State Making as Organized Crime,” in Bringing the State Back In, ed. by Peter Evans, Dietrich Rueschemeyer, and Theda Skocpol (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 181.
- Matt Waldman, “Community Peacebuilding in Afghanistan: The Case for a National Strategy” Oxfam International (February 2008) research report
- Peter Dahl Thruelsen “Small Wars & Insurgencies: The Taliban in southern Afghanistan: a localized insurgency with a local objectives” 21 July 2010.
- Map of Afghanistan (wikipedia.org)
- Khostani Chiefs in Kabul, 1879 (British Library)
- District and provincial leaders during a shura in Uruzgan, 2012 (commons.wikimedia.org)