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  In Search of Afghan Social Contract (1)

Andrius Bivainis
2012 02 06

The contemporary Afghanistan could be described as the country on the shaky and rocky path of nation building. What is more, this path is so full of challenges that the new riders could easily abort the journey towards new and prosperous Afghanistan future. Such a description comes in my mind after some time spent in one of mountainous regions of that country.

Today we see Afghanistan on that path moving slowly but firmly. Such impression comes as the mass media reports bring us images of Afghan national authorities overtaking responsibility for security and stability in certain provinces and towns of the country. Under these circumstances we can remember the grand mission declared by the president George W. Bush in the fall 2001. The grand mission called for: “democracy for Afghanistan, Marshall plans for Afghanistan, victory in Afghanistan”[1]. This was enthusiastically declared after the successful initial military campaign against the Taliban. Ten years have passed since then. The contemporary results of that grand mission in the conflict-torn Afghanistan are still quite grim.

The true is that these grand slogans of democracy, economical recovery and victory should be applied very accurately in contemporary Afghanistan. A deeper understanding of Afghan society and its social, cultural and political behavior ties must be considered in order to look for possible peace-making solutions in the country that has been torn by conflicts for more than 30 years already.

In this essay the main attention is paid to internal factors that do cause confrontation among diversified Afghan groups. More than that, analysis of difficulties in creation of a social contract or the effective nation building efforts is the objective of this work. Finally, possible solutions of the social contract dilemma and the certain policy of Afghanistan’s central government are highlighted in the last part of the work.

Afghanistan’s Socio-political Orientation

Ethnic tribes inhabiting the land of Afghanistan have been struggling for survive during the course of the history. These efforts have been made not only for countering geographical conditions but for making alliances to survive on political and military fields as well. Afghanistan lands are inhabited by people who are used to war atrocities and pragmatic inter-tribal coalitions[2]. There are seven main tribal groups populated in the lands of contemporary Afghanistan. These groups are Pashtun, Baluchi, Turkmen, Tajik, Uzbek, Aimak and Hazara. There are some more small tribes but they are not significantly influential in any region of the country.

Considering the political system of contemporary Afghanistan, it should be mentioned that Islamic Republic of Afghanistan is a unitary republic ruled according to the presidential democratic model[3]. Such a political model was implemented according to the Constitution of Afghanistan ratified in 2004. To tell the truth, this governing system has been started to implement since the Bonn agreement signed in 2001. This process was initiated by the U.S. Administration and some other international actors. The principal feature of this process was that only the winner side was granted the de-jure status for the participation in the creation of the constitutional structure and the formation of the first Government. Winners in that case were representatives of Northern Alliance and Afghan exile activists. Any option concerning the involvement of Taliban representatives was excluded. The classical approach of negotiations dictates that all major power brokers of each conflict should be invited at the negotiation table. But this was not the case for the political procedures following the Bonn agreement.

On the other hand, the democratic order was started to be implemented after a 20 years period of war. This important fact clearly illustrated that potential confrontations among different groups were still an issue aggravating the formation of a political society which is necessary for a traditional democratic consolidation.

The Contemporary Political System

As it was described previously the contemporary Afghan political system is the Presidential democracy. The President is elected at free general national elections for a no longer period than two cadencies. One presidential cadency lasts for five years[4]. The Afghan President has a broad influence over other political institutions. The President has a right to appoint members of the Ministers’ Cabinet, judges of the High Court, Governors of provinces and districts. More than that, chiefs of provincial security institutions are appointed by the President too.

The presidential influence over the legislative body is quite strong too. The Parliament (the National Assembly) of Afghanistan consists of two houses: an upper house called Meshrano Jirga (or House of Elders) and a lower house Walesi Jirga (House of People)[5]. One third of 102 Meshrano Jirga members are appointed directly by the President for the period of five years[6]. The other part of “House of Elders”members is appointed by Provincial Councils. Only members of Walesi Jirga (House of People) are elected during free, general and direct elections. The Presidential influence over the National Assembly is implemented by significant quantity of personal appointees to “House of Elders”. All legislative decisions must be passed on the mutual agreement of both houses[7]. That is why the part of appointed representatives plays a significant role in promotion of presidential position for any possible political decisions.

Such a political model was opposed by members of the Northern Alliance. Some ethnic tribes were supporting a stronger position of the Prime Minister. The division of political influence in diversified society of contemporary Iraq can be taken as the example in that case. More than that, the sovereign right of Provincial and District Councils to elect Governors independently was excluded too[8]. That is why the capability of central government to represent district level interests becomes quite questionable. Governors appointed by the President might be not respectful members of local communities. What is more, the role of political parties is grim too. To tell the truth, parties could be identified as groups of supporters of political leaders or opposing actors. Their role in the political process should be based on representative principles according to differing political ideologies. But this traditional model is still far away from implementation.

To sum up, the contemporary Afghan political system has quite significant disadvantages. The most significant of these disadvantages is the lack of parliament control over executive branches. This democratic tradition is overwhelmed by the presidential influence on legislative initiatives of the National Assembly. On the other hand, provincial and district interests are not so effectively achieved by the central government as it could be done by sovereign councils and their elected governors. This is an important factor if to bear in mind the traditional claim of freedom by different tribes of Afghan soil. So, the functional structure of the contemporary Afghan political system could be named as another socio-political experiment. Such experiments had taken place in Afghanistan at least twice during the XX century.

Heritage of Colonialism

In case of Afghanistan the colonialism could not be understood and applied as in most cases of the Middle East countries. The reason for that is simple. Afghanistan has never been fully occupied and controlled by any hegemonic power. Some authors might disagree with this fact suggesting that biggest urban areas and the most important trade lines were constantly controlled by different foreign empires[9]. The truth is that such a control had never been fully implemented over the population. Clear examples of Anglo–Afghan wars fought in the XIX century illustrates this proposition. What is more, the creation of Durand Line separating British – loyal Pashtun tribal areas from war oriented and occasionally united “rural peasants” is another example of how difficult is to win popular support for a colonialist policy[10].

The third Anglo–Afghan war was fought in 1919. After that war Britain lost any possibility of Kabul decisions’ political control. The new king Ammanulah Khan has initiated a radical social experiment. His initiative was to form a modern and secularized western style society in Afghanistan. The consequence of such a radical step was that many opposing groups saw such a rule as another British style political will[11]. More than that, many tribes were united under the idea of defense of traditional Islam norms. Soon a civil war broke in Afghanistan and the “radical ruler” was forced out from power.

Another similar social – political experiment was initiated in Afghanistan in 1978 soon after the communist party took power in Kabul. Again the defense of traditional Islam norms has played an important role in the mobilization of the society. Tribes rose once again to oppose secularization ideas and collectivization attempts. The defense of the traditional way of life in Afghanistan soon developed into the international jihad. So, the aggressive colonialist approach by a foreign player, in this case the Soviet Union, was met by a bloody and sacrificing resistance of many Afghan tribes.

These two social - political experiments conducted in Afghanistan during the XX century set preconditions for initiatives in the contemporary post-Taliban country. Earlier attempts were closely alienated with negative influence by foreign actors. These political attempts had violated traditional norms, religious dominance and traditional law. To tell the truth, the success of the current socio-political experiment run in Afghanistan by many international actors, will depend on the tolerance of traditional religious, cultural norms, interests of diversified tribes.

Evolution of Religion and Law

During the fight against Soviet invasion radical religious norms started to spread across Afghan society. Generally speaking, the announcement of jihadand conduct of it should be identified as a rapid process of religious radicalization. This process was influenced by a radical Salafismdoctrine originated in Saudi Arabia, the Islam state-actor which has played a great role in Afghan jihad[12]. The later cooperation between Al-Qaeda and Taliban regime could be named as a succession of this radicalization.

The influence of local religious leaders is still very evident in contemporary Afghanistan. This influence is implemented through mullahs’ abilities to spread religious-protectionism oriented public opinion and highlight misconduct of traditional norms by any foreign actors. The author of these lines had a possibility to realize the seriousness of this mullahs’ role in April 2011 when the message of burned Quran has initiated wild protests across many provinces in Afghanistan.

The warrior tribes had developed their own approach to religious tradition. There is one important feature of religious tradition that separates Afghan society in comparison with many other traditional Muslim societies. This feature is the complex diversity of traditional Shariat law and Pashtunwaliethnic code. Pashtunwali is the traditional ethnic code originated in Pashtun tribal areas but common in other provinces as well. The ethnic code is based on three basic principles: honor (so called nang), hospitability (melmastya) and revenge (badal). A deep understanding of honor and revenge (which is often associated with “an eye for an eye” expressions) is the most popular among all Afghan tribes[13]. These two ethnic norms should be associated with historical Afghans’ tradition to re-unite in face of foreign attempts to control tribal areas. What is more, the external control is usually evaluated as the act of devastation of tribal freedom and honor.

Taliban regime which originated in southern Pashtun dominated province of Kandahar was strongly influenced by Pashtunwali norms. More than that, Talibs have united these norms with Shariat law. Direct interpretations of Quran and the aim to promote a pure Islamic way of social behavior are definitive points of Islamic fundamentalist movements. Taliban has achieved some additional features that brought it the definition of “fundamentalism gone mad”[14]. These features were the absolute ignorance of women’s role in society, public punishments for violation of Islamic norms and preventive sanctions like “beard patrolling”.

Another important feature of Taliban rule was that the regime was concentrated on the lower level of society. The main objective of this group was to win popular support. This was done in most provinces by securing the interests of local groups and bringing the needed Shariat justice in times of civil war anarchy. This way of behavior by addressing and promoting grass-roots society needs differs from the contemporary regime of Afghanistan central government. Some important examples are illustrating the unsuccessful attempts of the central government to address basic local needs at district level. In some eastern and southern provinces of Afghanistan people are eager to ask for solutions of disputes at unofficial courts established by local religious and war leaders[15]. This example shows that customary law and religious norms are deeply grown into society. On the other hand, the existence of unofficial tribal courts highlights still ineffective capabilities of the central government after a decade of administrative development.

Which Way to Social Contract?

Many of causes of the contemporary crisis could be identified looking through the prism of ethnical and tribal diversity of the Afghan society. Religious radicalization, growing influence of religious leaders, appealing to tribal leaders or war lords in assurance of basic needs are indicators that clearly show the lack of central government’s capabilities to implement its’ rule over a diversified population. To tell the truth, the stability and the progress of internationally supported development could not be evaluated on equal basis on the whole country. The tribal diversity could be usually defined as a separation line for the progress and reintegration in the contemporary political system[16]. Here the core problem of this ongoing conflict should be identified. It is the lack of a social contract among ethnic or tribal entities of the current Afghanistan.

The lack of the social contract means that there were no historic nation building attempts in this wide community. Arguably, such an attempt could be defined during the period of the constitutional monarchy from early 1930’s till early 1970’s. But this was a short period that was followed by overlapping war periods. The lack of the social contract could be influenced by three major aspects. First of all, there is no traditional psychological identification of a common Afghan nation. Stephen Tanner has declared it correctly saying that: “… Afghan is simply someone who comes from Afghanistan. The term now includes ethnic Pashtuns, Turks, mongoloid Hazaras, redheaded Nuristanis, brown-skinned Brahui, and number of other groups”[17]. Secondly, the ethnic diversity was not minimized by any long lasting political will. The lack of political unification could be caused by a harsh terrain and difficulties to set control of such lands during old ages. The third aspect comes along with the claim of freedom of the will. Separate tribal groups had developed strong sense of honorwhen enjoying freedom and the pragmatic practice of cooperation under the aim of revenge once their freedom was devastated by neighboring group(s) or foreign forces. Under such circumstances there were almost no practical solutions for a broad unification and nation building attempts.

Finally, the today’s socio-political experiment could become a successful attempt. For that reason some important factors should be evaluated. First of all, the traditional cultural norms and customary law should be included into the nation building process. This feature would make today’s attempts different from what the communists were trying to implement in late 1970’s. What is more, the interests of lower society level should be taken into account in order to achieve better results. District level interests in that society could be achieved by submitting a decision freedom to district councils. Such a submission could provoke a motivation for political activism of local groups and prevent the possibility for violation of their honor once serious decisions are made without them. The successful elections of the first ever district councils should mark central government’s will and capabilities to implement these positive changes of rule.

The other factor describing the success of political system is the possible change of main political positions according to constitutional principles. There we no peaceful political changes during the Afghan history. The second cadency of President H. Karzai exceeds in 2014. Afghans should already start to pave the way towards a peaceful political development beyond that time-line. The promotion of political parties’ role could help in that matter. Parties should be organized as active bodies of political participation involved in promotion of regional ethnic, social and unification ideas. Only the active role of political parties could lead to the development of political society. That process could be implemented during the long-term, but only if sufficient steps in promotion of regional political participation, increased political will and participation by parties will be achieved before the upcoming elections. As the international community is setting time-lines for active involvement in Afghanistan, their strategic success now will largely depend on central government’s progress in reach of a new social contract of diversified Afghan groups. If these efforts fail there is no guarantee that multinational air forces will not execute missions over Kandahar or Kabul once again.

References

1. David E. Sanger, The Inheritance. A New President Confronts the World, Black Swan, Great Britain (2009).

2. Tanner S., Afghanistan: A Military History of Afghanistan from Alexander The Great to the War Against the Taliban, Da Capo Press, Philadelphia 2009.

3. The Constitution of Afghanistan, obtained at: http://www.cmi.no/afghanistan/background/docs/DraftConstitution.pdf, (2011 10 23).

4. The Insurgency in Afghanistan‘s Heartland, International Crisis Group, Asia Report No 207, June 2011.

5. Katzman K., “Afghanistan: Politics, Elections and Government Performance“, CRS Report for Congress, March 2011.

6.Guest K., “Dynamic Interplay Between Religion and Armed Conflicts in Afghanistan”, http://www.icrc.org/eng/assets/files/review/2010/irrc-880-guest.pdf, (2011 10 23).

7.Barfield T., “Afghanistan‘s Ethnic Puzzle“, Foreign Affairs, September/October 2011, volume 90, p. 54-65.

8. Denoeux G., “The Forgotten Swamp: Navigating Political Islam”, Middle East Policy, vol. IX, No. 2, June 2002.

__________________________________

[1]David E. Sanger, The Inheritance. A New President Confronts the World, Black Swan, Great Britain (2009), p. 450.

[2]Guest K., “Dynamic Interplay Between Religion and Armed Conflicts in Afghanistan”, http://www.icrc.org/eng/assets/files/review/2010/irrc-880-guest.pdf, (2011 10 23).

[3] The Constitution of Afghanistan, Articles 1,2, 60, obtained at: http://www.cmi.no/afghanistan/background/docs/DraftConstitution.pdf, (2011 10 23).

[4] The Constitution of Afghanistan, Article 62, (see note 2).

[5] The Constitution of Afghanistan, Article 82.

[6]Katzman K., „Afghanistan: Politics, Elections and Government Performance“, CRS Report for Congress, March 2011, p. 5.

[7] The Constitution of Afghanistan, Article 93.

[8] Katzman K., „Afghanistan: Politics, Elections and Government Performance“, CRS Report for Congress, March 2011, p. 3-4.

[9]Barfield T., “Afghanistan‘s Ethnic Puzzle“, Foreign Affairs, September/October 2011, volume 90, p. 54-65.

[10] Guest K., “Dynamic Interplay Between Religion and Armed Conflicts in Afghanistan”, http://www.icrc.org/eng/assets/files/review/2010/irrc-880-guest.pdf, (2011 10 23).

[11] Tanner S., Afghanistan: A Military History of Afghanistan From Alexander The Great to the War Against the Taliban, Da Capo Press, Philadelphia 2009, p. 218.

[12] Denoeux G., „The Forgotten Swamp: Navigating Political Islam“, Middle East Policy, vol. IX, No. 2, June 2002, p. 61.

[13]Guest K., “Dynamic Interplay Between Religion and Armed Conflicts in Afghanistan”, http://www.icrc.org/eng/assets/files/review/2010/irrc-880-guest.pdf, (2011 10 23).

[14] Denoeux G., “The Forgotten Swamp: Navigating Political Islam“, Middle East Policy, vol. IX, No. 2, June 2002, p. 67.

[15] The Insurgency in Afghanistan‘s Heartland, International Crisis Group, Asia Report No 207, June 2011, p. 16-17.

[16] More on that important feature: Barfield T., “Afghanistan‘s Ethnic Puzzle“, Foreign Affairs, September/October 2011, volume 90, p. 54-65; and The Insurgency in Afghanistan‘s Heartland, International Crisis Group, Asia Report No 207, June 2011.

[17] Tanner S., Afghanistan: A Military History of Afghanistan from Alexander the Great to the War Against the Taliban, Da Capo Press, Philadelphia 2009, p. 8.

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