Afghanistan has been a nation-state for more than 250 years. It has a relatively long history of maintaining a modern-day government with the Kabul having functioned as the nerve-center of this nation-state as well as its capital. The post-Taliban era in Afghanistan, beginning with the American invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, has essentially been a new effort in government and state-building in our country. The wars and conflicts of over two decades prior to the invasion of 2001 had ravaged Afghanistan's institutions and mechanisms of national and local governance.
Under the Taliban regime, government and governance were extremely out-dated and archaic with the Taliban not even familiar with the basic principles of running the affairs of a country and nation on modern terms. Under the Taliban, Afghanistan had been relegated to a status of a "broken, 13th century" country.
The only achievement that the Taliban could garner was ruling the country with an iron fist and maintaining a degree of calmness and stability. On other fronts and as far as modern indicators of government and governance were concerned, Taliban could not and were simply incapable of delivering.
They neither had any plan nor any interest in bringing development and raising the terribly poor socio-economic standards of Afghanistan - imperatives and obligations that are the natural duty and responsibility of every modern-day government. What they had in abundance were ignorance, hatred and a sense of sexual perversion inculcated in them in the seminaries in which they had spent much of their lives.
Perverted mental obsession about the virgins in heaven were and are still their main concern of life and not any serious attempt at understanding the intricacies of running a modern-day government. Their claims and aspirations to once again take over running the country and our nation are a non-starter. This is largely because, over the long-term, they are simply incapable of holding together a country, a state and a nation. Running the affairs of a modern-day government is not the task of a handful of barbarians out from seminaries in the mountains.
Moving on from the disaster of the Taliban years, the post-Taliban Afghanistan has had terrible shortcomings as far as building and maintaining a modern-day government is concerned. The fact is that the processes of state-building in post-Taliban Afghanistan is still an incomplete venture.
As the deadline of 2014 draws closer, it is only natural to expect that the many formidable challenges in the way of state-building in Afghanistan be gradually removed. Some of these challenges such as corruption are well-known to all. However, some others usually get neglected and are not recognized as part of the larger picture.
Criminalization of the state
The local and sub-national governments and governance in Afghanistan are heavily criminalized. Here, i would like to distinguish between corruption as one thing and criminalization of the state as another. Many districts and provincial governments in Afghanistan of today have gone terrible to the extent that the whole structure of local state and local government has become a criminal enterprise masquerading as legitimate, service-providing local government.
We have administrators and political appointees at the provincial and district levels who are outright criminals, killing, looting, stealing, extorting and embezzling in public with total impunity and no available system of checks and balances to prevent them from their misdeeds.
Time and again, we have heard about extremely corrupt governors and district chiefs who kill, murder, loot and steal millions and help a network of cronies around them line their pockets to the tune of millions of dollars each. What we are dealing with is not simply corruption. Terming this as corruption is an under-statement of the actual situation. What is going on is a criminalization of local and sub-national state with no one, including the president, able to prevent this ongoing process.
To a large extent, local and sub-national governance at the provincial and district levels are handed over and controlled by local and regional warlords, who maintain their own private armies and have local governments exclusively in their own hands. Their rules are characterized by sheer corruption and cronyism with no accountability towards any national or sub-national authority.
As it is evident, at the sub-national and regional levels, the informal structures and networks of power - comprised of warlords and drug-traffickers - still dominate and "own" the formal structures of government. You might have a provincial post of a governor within the structure of the state; but the person who comes to occupy this post in none other than a regional strongman or a warlord either from that area or brought in from another region.
This criminalization of the state has led to massive levels of corruption not seen in the history of Afghanistan. The continuation of war and conflict and prevalence of insecurity, lop-sided allocation of national resources including foreign aid, and indifference and incompetence on the part of policy-makers in the center have further fueled and contributed to the pathetic state of local and sub-national governance in Afghanistan.
This grim fact indicates that, over the past ten years, Afghanistan has made little progress in building its local governments in a way that they can deliver on their duties and responsibilities. As the security situation has continued to worsen and as this breakdown has spread across the system, local governance in Afghanistan has taken further beating. In a survey conducted in 2010, over half of the sample districts studied had "dysfunctional" and "unproductive" local governments. In more than one fifth of the districts studied, there was no administration and government at all.
Afghanistan has set for itself lofty goals in the areas of security, governance and development as it prepares to transition to the 2014 milestone and beyond. With such a widespread breakdown in governance across the country, it is very difficult to see how the government of Afghanistan in Kabul will be able to realize these goals and objectives.
Lack of local governments or dysfunctional local governance means that even if the Taliban and anti-government armed groups are not initially present, there would be strong incentives for the local people to favor the Taliban or actively support them.
In the upcoming conferences of Istanbul and Bonn, ideally, the issue of Afghanistan's local governance must be among the issues at the center of debates and discussions. The international community must continue to extend assistance to the cause of local state-building in Afghanistan, which has practically stopped in tracks since 2008. It should also hold the central government under President Karzai accountable and pressurize it to accelerate the process of meaningful reforms.