In Afghanistan every body talks about economic development. From the President to his Cabinet ministers and onward to the Central Bank of the country, all unanimously uphold the notion that Afghanistan's economic development is and should be high on the national agenda. The international community involved in Afghanistan, the foreign donors, the international financial and development institutions such as the World Bank and the UN, all stress the importance of building Afghanistan's economy by revitalizing its state institutions and expanding its private sector.
But hardly anyone tries to draw attention to the challenge of political development and its acute urgency in a country that has suffered for long on account of its defective and deficient political paradigms and models. The silence on this issue on the part of our government and the international community is deafening.
No political development without greater de-centralization of power
In the context of Afghanistan, political development is not and should not be limited to a few objectives of holding elections and installation of a parliament in Kabul. Afghanistan's experience with parliaments is not new.
During the era of monarchy, a functioning parliament was established in Kabul, with the King having the exclusive right to appoint men of his choice in the national assembly besides the elections that were held. In post-Taliban Afghanistan, reviving the institution of parliament is not a new achievement; it is merely restoring what used to be part of the country's state apparatus until a few decades earlier.
Electing the country's chief executive to the post of Presidency through an electoral process is another achievement. Provincial councils and non-existent district councils have been heralded as new and progressive features of Afghanistan's post-Taliban Constitution.
But the prevailing situation in the country begs the question whether we as a nation have been able to move beyond these first few successes on the path to greater political development. Greater political development, as an undeniable imperative for Afghanistan of today, must involve, first and foremost, greater de-centralization and devolution of power in the national governance apparatus towards local administrations in various regions, provinces and districts.
The current imbalance between the national and sub-national distribution of power is one of the most prominent causes of persistent instability in the country. Furthermore, political development for Afghanistan naturally imply moving gradually towards a modern form of political parties-based politics in which it is the political parties that work as channels of political currents and undercurrents.
The overarching objective of greater political development in Afghanistan must move forward beyond the current facade of fraud-tainted elections and an appearance of democratic decision-making, when, in fact, absolute majority of ordinary people remain powerless, dis-empowered and unheard.
Afghanistan, as any other country, has its own complex peculiarities and unique social, cultural and political attributes. These sets of unique features set Afghanistan apart from not only many other developed and developing countries but even from its neighbors such as Iran and Pakistan with whom Afghanistan has wide-ranging cultural, ethnic and social linkages.
In such a context that is unique to Afghanistan, the process of political development in Afghanistan should not necessarily be reduced to copying prescribed Western paradigms of political development. But instead local and indigenous models should also be included in this process; models that have proved their usefulness in more than 250 years of Afghan nation-state's modern history.
In Afghanistan's quest for greater political development, these historical models and paradigms of governance and politics are impossible to disregard or suppress. Since the establishment of the Afghan nation-state in the 18th century, various regions of Afghanistan, each having their own ethnic and linguistic features, enjoyed a relative degree of autonomy with the King in the capital being alive to these sets of regional sensitivities.
This form of governance worked fairly well and allowed Afghanistan to have a relative political and social stability for a long time. History has shown that trouble in Afghanistan has erupted whenever the central government has sought to impose its own will upon various regions.
Disregarding and seeking to disrupt and dismantle local self-rule of regions by the central government has always been a trigger for the wider conflicts that have periodically consumed Afghanistan and its people. In 2002 and 2003 after the Taliban regime was ousted, there were many strident calls to restore to some degree this historic paradigm of governance in Afghanistan that had withstood the test of time for long.
Unfortunately, such voices of reason were suppressed and dismissed as dangerous. The reasons offered were that de-centralizing the national power and giving more autonomy to regional administrations at the province and district levels would strengthen the hands of regional warlords. A strong and centralized government with a President that looks more like a king than a chief executive, was told, would guarantee the national unity and prevents further ethnic and regional divisions.
Consequently, the post-Taliban government that was put in place adopted a strictly centralized model of power distribution that disregarded and even denied Afghanistan's diversities and put various regions and ethnic groups at the mercy of a biased central government.
Many troubles and problems in Afghanistan have a strong local aspect to them. Even the Taliban insurgency has a strong local and regional undercurrent to it. These all make it clear that an overly-centralized distribution of power in Afghanistan is, far from being the cure, is a root cause of many troubles the country is grappling with. This folly has continued until now with the international community, including the U.S., showing no willingness to try to address these sets of fundamental short-comings.
A brief look at the state of local governance right now in Afghanistan makes clear the extent of damage done by this overly-centralized model of governance. Provincial governors are not given authority beyond proposing ideas and programs to the center for approval to be later implemented in their provinces.
Every small or big appointment should be done by the center with the provincial governor having no option but to conform to the intrusive micro-management by the center. In matters of budget and funding, provinces and districts are at the mercy of the center with the provincial governor and the provincial council having no authority of their own in allocating budgets and appointing people who they deem the most suited for running the local affairs.
This is only a part of the problems due to the overly-centralized model of governance in the country. A comprehensive academic research by the likes of Afghanistan's Research and Evaluation Unit would be needed to unravel the extent of the shortcomings and prove in detail the inadequacy of the current model.
The fact is Afghanistan's progress on the path to greater political development stopped in its tracks after Afghanistan's new Constitution was enacted in January of 2004. Part and parcel of and integral to the process of greater political development in Afghanistan should be addressing this historical fallacy.
Therefore, Afghanistan's quest for greater political development should be re-ignited by moving gradually away from this deficient paradigm and empowering local communities and people. The upcoming Bonn conference is a good opportunity for the international community and those concerned within and outside the Afghan government to draw attention to this important fact and set in motion a movement aimed at reforming the current model.