The current nation-building strategy in Afghanistan would be appropriate for the conditions on the ground if the Afghans were already accustomed to a single ruling faction. The Afghans and Americans have had difficulty jointly creating a central government in Afghanistan that will match the needs of the state; this should not be controversial. A few of the problems associated with creating a strong Afghan national government are listed here: the tribes are loosely affiliated groups with little sense of national unity, the tribes have competing interests and also have a desire for retention of local power and autonomy. This article will argue that there have been at least two very successful transitions from these exact criteria to productive unified governing bodies; one is the United States at its founding and the other is the United Nations.
Afghanistan has numerous voices that need to be heard, but the tribes are unwilling to buy into a single figure as the national leader. This should be understandable, since those who communicate the will of the tribes are typically thought of not as leaders, but as spokesmen. This position in fact, is quite similar to the Native American view of leadership, which should not be alien to American strategists. To correct our policy to accommodate this difference in leadership strategy, we should adopt the same methodology utilized in 1945 when creating the United Nations (UN).
Following the Second World War, it is well known that the UN was created as a highly diverse international body composed of vastly different groups with completely different interests and goals. This arrangement was designed in order to allow all voices to be represented in one centralized location. In Afghanistan, there is a similar situation. Numerous tribes would like representation, which could be accommodated through a legislative assembly consisting of representatives chosen by each tribe. Thus, utilizing this method would allow tribes to voice their concerns and redress their grievances within a national framework that would lend increased credibility to the decision-making process. The tribes would make national decisions together as a group, which would be nothing more than a larger, macro version of their own natural intra-tribal management.
As to the traditional three branches of government, the “legislative” has been covered, but the “executive” will be an important consideration. National governments typically employ an executive as a way to provide quicker decision-making in a crisis and a national figure that can symbolize the government. Within the United Nations, the group of the most powerful nations served jointly as the executive, providing legitimacy to more constituents than a single nation acting as the executive could. Afghanistan will likely need an executive, but they may not be ready for the conflict that would emerge from the executive decision-making process. If they decide that they prefer an executive, but are unhappy with the current single figurehead of government, they could again model the United Nations in selecting a “security council” style executive composed of the top tribes defined as the most popular or most powerful as they see fit. This would have the advantage of improving collaboration and credibility among all tribes, as one tribe would not be effectively deciding for all.
Similarly, the United States was not so different when its national government was founded. The thirteen colonies were comparable to the modern Afghan tribes in terms of state/tribal difference in attitude and interests, fear of a strong central government and preference for local control. The American colonies therefore created the Articles of Confederation in order to preserve the autonomy of the states while permitting the creation of a weak national government. Following rebellions over whiskey and pirate attacks, they soon understood that a strong central government was necessary in order to put down the rebellions and pay for the things they need (such as a common defense).
Some may be concerned that the Articles of Confederation was a failure and that the document would be a strange choice to follow in order to achieve lasting success. My response would be that we must walk before we can run. As the United States did, the Afghan government may in time find that a collective style executive government, much like our Articles of Confederation, is useful for sharing power, but weak in collective defense and national expansion, be it military, economic or cultural. They will also have their own rebellions (Al-Qaida/Taliban) to put down and their own security issues to concern themselves with as their commerce grows (Islamic terror, Iran, Pakistan). These issues will be likely to force a serious rethink about how much power local leaders are willing to retain at the expense of national matters. Over the long term, forcing them to jump ahead several generations in state development by recognizing a single national leader as the current system does will simply destabilize and erode the credibility of the government.
Under a collective system, such as the one I’ve modeled, the Afghan tribes will eventually find that either choosing or electing one leader or tribe to represent the national government will be an efficient way of improving national power. This style will permit Afghan tribal leaders who value their power and autonomy to eventually make the decision regarding centralized government for themselves, much as the early American leaders did. The international community is looking for a method to select which will allow the Afghans to rule themselves effectively over the long term, which would be judged by the Afghan ability to strengthen their own institutions and eliminate the presence of safe havens for chaos and terror. So far, NATO has chosen to utilize the single leader method, led by Hamid Karzai, but the Afghans are just not ready for that stage yet. Consequently, this is the impetus for a collective system that will get the tribes working together first, and in the end, will be more likely to create a lasting government of Afghan design.
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