Road Not Noticed
Decentralized Government and Nation-Building
that the Taliban seem to have been defeated, now that Al Qaeda seems
to be on the run although as of this writing Osama (Usama?) bin
Laden still seems to be alive and at large a few people are talking
about the shape of a future government in Afghanistan. Various Afghan
factions under the supervision of Europeans and other international
supposed experts, have cobbled together an interim government in
a meeting in Germany. But few observers expect a smooth path to
a government whose authority is recognized and respected widely
enough to avoid factional infighting any time soon.
British might take the lead commanding an international "peacekeeping"
force, although Prime Minister Tony Blair has expressed a degree
of reluctance. It would be ironic if the British rode to effective
political power in Afghanistan a country that frustrated
them repeatedly during the old imperial days on the shoulders
of American military might and Russian-backed Northern Alliance
troops on the ground. But it might happen.
the one issue on which Afghans have historically agreed is opposition
to foreign troops in Afghanistan for extended periods of time. So
even if the Brits do lead international forces for a while, it seems
unlikely that they will establish a permanent political presence.
They might not even want to do so.
the question of a government that might last longer than a few months
or years without precipitating another outbreak of civil war will
a certain extent it will matter little to the United States or even
to Europe if "nation-building" fails in Afghanistan so long as the
country doesn't continue to harbor terrorists able and willing to
foray out into other parts of the world. But ordinary human beings
in any country can wish the Afghans better than they are likely
to get, out of fellow-feeling for human beings rather than a desire
to influence or control a country that has long served as a pawn
to neighbors near and far.
is likely that the powermongers will prevail in the near term. Pakistan,
Uzbekistan, Russia, Tajikistan and oilmen worldwide all believe
they have an interest in the future shape of Afghanistan, beyond
the simple interest of the United States in making sure the country
doesn't harbor terrorists who could attack these shores again. So
the political and ethnic struggles that have dominated much of Afghan
history are likely to continue in different forms, with different
alliances (note the recent side-changing) and different interests,
but with plenty of bloodshed.
a human being, rather than necessarily as an American, that saddens
me. I believe there's irony in the confusion and frustration with
which most observers view Afghanistan's likely future, because there
is an American model although not exclusively American by a long
shot that could be helpful in Afghanistan and other multiethnic
countries, and in fact would meld rather nicely with Afghan traditions.
Unfortunately, most American government leaders don't understand
the model and most members of the vaunted "international community"explicitly
reject it. Still, it's worth putting out there as a possibility.
speak, of course, of what might be called the federalist model
something like the original U.S. Constitution rather than the regime
into which that model has evolved or changed through de facto revolution.
There are other terms for essentially the same concept. Roman Catholics
have a tradition called subsidiarity which the current Pope has
mentioned from time to time. Some call it devolution of power. And
without necessarily having a label, Afghanistan has used a similar
model in the past.
idea is to have a weak and limited central government, perhaps confined
to relations with other countries and maybe a judicial system
one that is not powerful enough to oppress minorities with
most governmental functions carried out at the most local possible
level. It would help if it were easy to secede from the central
government, but that option is not absolutely required. It would
be essential to allow complete
freedom of internal migration without the need to show papers or
permission from the authorities.
main thing is to have governing institutions that are close enough
to the people to be accountable to them, so people with different
backgrounds and preferences whether the preferences are based
on region or ethnic origin can have the kind of government they
prefer. So long as migration is permitted, local governments might
even end up competing with one another to attract adherents.
possible advantages of such a system in Afghanistan should be apparent.
There is no majority ethnic or tribal group in Afghanistan. According
recent Time piece on the country's prospects,
Pashtun are the largest minority, making up some 38 percent of the
population, but like the Tajik (25 percent), Hazara (19 percent)
and Uzbek (6 percent) they are a part of a group whose majority
lives in another country. Most Pashtuns live in Pakistan, Tajiks
in Tajikistan, Uzbeks in Uzbekistan, and while the Hazaras are not
ethnically linked with Iran, their Shiite brand of Islam gives them
a common identity with the Islamic republic distinct from their
neighbors have traditionally meddled in Afghan politics, and Afghanistan
was a focus of hostility and maneuvering during the "great game"
played between the Russian and British empires in the 19th-century.
This might argue for partitioning the country into smaller entities
that might think about exercising the option of joining with those
of similar ethnicity across borders that are more than a bit arbitrary
and were largely created by foreign imperialists.
the other hand, there seems to be something of an Afghan national
identity with an appeal beyond simple ethnic identity. Certainly
Afghans of different ethnic origins have managed repeatedly to unite
long enough to kick out armed foreigners in their midst trying to
bring them the dubious benefits of civilization (or to use them
in great-power games). The British, Russians, Soviets and even foreign
Taliban or Al Qaeda fighters have all learned this at some cost
essentially federalist system (what you call it matters little so
long as the essential characteristics are there) would allow a range
of options to be exercised. So long as the central government's
authority is limited enough that minorities don't have to fear (too
much) if it is captured by some other group, there should be little
(or at least less) reason for bloody battles and squabbles on the
national level. If the option of secession or joining with ethnic
compatriots in some other country is left open preferably
on the basis of an overwhelming supermajority sentiment the
central government will have less incentive to want to aggrandize
its power and repress minorities.
would also be preferable to make the entire country a free-trade
zone, preventing local governments from imposing discriminatory
taxes or tariffs on goods produced in other parts of the country.
The fact that the United States is a continent-wide free-trade zone
was a major (and largely underappreciated) factor in the country's
growth in prosperity over the years. Preventing the use of discriminatory
economic weapons by local warlords also reduces the danger from
one more potential source of conflict and hostility.
would be important to promote this idea not as an American model
to be imposed on Afghanistan, but as a way of systematizing and
regularizing what has been Afghani practice through most of its
history. Almost every Afghan I have talked to has noted that the
country has always had a relatively weak central government.
observers view this as a disadvantage, and considering the history
of meddling by neighbors one can understanding a sneaking desire
to have a central government at least strong enough to resist such
efforts. But if a central government of limited powers that allows
a high degree of local autonomy is seen as a strength and a benefit
and a source of pride, the country might be on its way to a better
main reason such a scenario is unlikely, however unless the Afghans
figure it out for themselves and kick the international observers
out is that the kind of people likely to be involved in peacekeeping
or nation-building efforts on a professional basis find the idea
of decentralism and localism not just somewhat backward and old-fashioned a model we have moved beyond but almost literally incomprehensible.
Those who have moved into positions of authority in nation-states
and international organizations are almost all relentless centralizers
who believe that the key to civilized life is the kind of large-scale
bureaucratic institutions they happen to inhabit.
think it is safe to say, for example, that the average Eurocrat
doesn't see himself as I see him as part of a parasitic growth
on a society that developed enough prosperity through centuries
of relatively decentralized political rule enhanced by relatively
free trade that it could tolerate some parasites without dying.
They don't see large central bureaucracies as a luxury good always
threatening to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. Instead,
they see the institutions they control as the real drivers and engines
of prosperity and civilized behavior. Almost every institution of
higher education in putatively civilized countries reinforces this
they're tasked with building a third-world nation, their first impulse
is to erect all kinds of powerful central institutions staffed by
educated and refined people long before a country has developed
anything close to the kind of economic prosperity that would allow
it to pay for such institutions. These large, centralized institutions
tend to choke a new country before it even has a chance to develop
a semblance of economic prosperity or political stability. Instead
of facilitating growth and independence, the institutions tend to
foster corruption and rip-offs by those who already have (relatively
speaking) a degree of wealth or power. So the poor get poorer.
those likely to be charged with assisting countries like Afghanistan
are likely to be entirely clueless about efficacious ways to do
it. It might be possible for the task to be accomplished by private
organizations acting as advisers without any chance at having real
power (although most supposed "Non-Governmental-Organizations" in
the international realm are more committed to government power than
the governments themselves). Until the potential of decentralization
is rediscovered and appreciated, nation-building by existing international
institutions is likely to be a fruitless and often downright harmful
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