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OPINION

Afghanistan must decentralize its government

By WAHAB RAOFI | Special to Stars and Stripes | Published: October 2, 2020

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After a decade of bloody conflict, delegations from Afghanistan’s government and the Taliban convened in Doha, Qatar, to negotiate a peace agreement. Initiated early in September, the event was touted by some as “unprecedented” in the country’s recent history and hailed an historic moment for Afghans. However, those familiar with Afghan history know that this is not the first, nor will it be the last, such attempt at peace.

Afghans have repeatedly held such talks to reestablish governments or shattered systems. The agony is that every time they do so, they do it on a foundation of the debris of that which has already collapsed.

The Doha meeting is no different from previous such gatherings. For example, after the Taliban regime was overthrown by the United States in 2001, delegations from Afghan political factions met in Bonn, Germany, to negotiate a post-Taliban arrangement. The Bonn Agreement, under the auspices of the United Nations, selected Hamid Karzai as the interim head of government until elections were held.

Nineteen years later, after nearly 15,000 casualties and over $2 trillion U.S. dollars spent, the Taliban are back, and the prospect of peace is no better. U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad brokered a deal between the U.S. and Taliban in March, but the Afghan government was not part of that. During a recent hearing before the U.S. House subcommittee on National Security, Khalilzad said negotiations between the Taliban and Afghan government may fail.

But let’s assume that the Taliban and Afghan government eventually hammer out an agreement. Will this bring peace? Almost certainly not.

All these meetings have one common goal: to establish a centralized government in Afghanistan. It’s a road that has been traveled before and has always led to failure. Indeed, it’s a road likely to lead to perpetual conflict.

The existing political and administrative systems in Afghanistan are archaic. They can’t synchronize with the social and political dynamic that emerged during the past four decades. The current political structures were established by the Constitution of Afghanistan, adopted in 2004, which is a revised version of the Constitution adopted in 1964 when the country was ruled by a monarchy.

The Afghan Constitution has placed enormous responsibility on the shoulders of the president, making him preside over all three branches of government. The concentration is so extreme that not only are the governors of 34 provinces appointed by the president, but also the subgovernors, mayors and chiefs of police. Even the expenses and procurements of every province must bear the president’s signature.

It doesn’t require an economist to see the hazards and debilitating effects of such a monopoly of power vested in a single individual.

Imagine what it would be like if the U.S. president not only appointed his Cabinet members, but also every state’s governor, every city’s mayor and police chief, and every person running every bank and financial institution.

Afghanistan has experimented with many political systems, and the country has become a graveyard for every one of them.

Ahmad Massoud, son of military commander Ahmad Shah Massoud (who was assassinated a few days before the 9/11 attacks), wrote in The New York Times: “For a lasting peace and just political order to be established in Afghanistan, significant structural changes need to be made to our highly centralized political and administrative system that concentrates power and financial resources in the office of the president with little accountability. The lack of an institutional power-sharing arrangement between Kabul and the provinces, and the winner-takes-all system in the central government, drive a zealous competition for the presidency.”

J. Alexander Their, with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote in Foreign Affairs that “decentralized governance is not only historically grounded in Afghan history, but also theoretically important for democracy.”

The next U.S. president should not try to impose a military solution on Afghanistan. It should leave the Afghans to their own devices; the only way to get to the root of the conflict is decentralization. Allow the provinces to largely govern themselves in ways similar to how the U.S. grants states’ rights.

Afghan conflicts didn’t start with the invasion of U.S. troops or even with the inception of the Taliban. From the conquest of Afghanistan by Alexander the Great in 330 BC to the Mongol invasions of the 13th century, the Anglo-Afghan wars of the 1800s, the Soviet invasion of the 1970s-’80s and Afghan civil wars of the 1990s, Afghanistan has been a boiling kettle of conflict.

Such talks as those in Doha, even if they appear to hold promise, will not solve the Afghan problem, nor achieve the U.S. objective of defeating al-Qaida and its terrorist affiliates.

Until a decentralization of power is established in Afghanistan, we can only expect a continuation of foreign interference, safe havens for jihadists, chaos, dysfunction and never-ending war.

Wahab Raofi, an Afghan-born American, is a graduate of Kabul Law School. He formerly worked as an interpreter for NATO forces in Afghanistan.