Asia Program

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Establishing Political Legitimacy in Afghanistan

April 15, 2010 // 4:00pm5:30pm
Event Co-sponsors: 
Middle East Program
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Thirty thousand new U.S. troops are on their way to Afghanistan. However, even with the arrival of these military reinforcements, the troubled country continues to be convulsed by violence and conflict. According to Thomas J. Barfield, part of the problem is that current efforts to restore stability in Afghanistan have lost sight of historical parallels—and particularly those dealing with legitimacy. At an April 15 event organized by the Asia Program and co-sponsored with the Middle East Program, Barfield, an anthropology professor at Boston University, spoke about the failure to appreciate the history of political legitimacy—as well as of conquest, insurgency, and governance—in Afghanistan.

Barfield identified several oft-stated "half-truths" about Afghanistan. One is that the country has never been conquered by outsiders. In fact, he explained, it is not that Turko-Persian empires and other foreign invaders of the past were unable to conquer Afghanistan. Rather, most of them had no interest in doing so. They sought instead to take over only those parts of the country—usually urban areas—that they considered sufficiently worthwhile to hold as foreign assets. Other parts—those deemed of lesser strategic value—were simply left alone.

A second half-truth is that Afghanistan is "a land of unending insurgencies." Not true, declared Barfield. The country did not experience any type of insurgency until the first Anglo-Afghan war, which occurred in the mid-19th century. Yet even this insurgency was rural and "highly localized"; the first full-fledged national insurgency did not arise until after the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan. During the Soviet occupation, insurgents sought to make the country "ungovernable" for foreigners. Unfortunately, Barfield noted, this also had the effect of making Afghanistan ungovernable for Afghans—a consequence that helped trigger the country's long period of civil war.

A third half-truth is that Afghan rulers gain legitimacy through the approval of loya jirgas—large gatherings of political and tribal leaders and other important figures in Afghan society. This was the path taken by the current Afghan president, Hamid Karzai. Yet Barfield pointed out that other than the Karzai example, this appeal to jirgas for legitimacy has happened only two times in Afghanistan's history. The country, he said, lacks a tradition of "seeking the consent of the governed." Leadership credentials are proven by "showing you're a ruler, not by asking to be a ruler."

What are the lessons learned from all this? Barfield argued that the international community and Afghans alike must recognize that the ideal system of political administration in Afghanistan is a "Swiss cheese" model—in essence, a decentralized form of governance. The West (and the current government in Kabul) has stubbornly clung to a belief in the "American cheese" model, which emphasizes a strong central state. "We need to change the menu to a different cheese," Barfield concluded. One way to do so is to make the rule of law more flexible, and adaptable to different contexts. Imposing the same uniform rule of law across the entire country—from Kabul to the "highest peaks of the Himalayas"— makes little sense.

A second lesson learned is that Afghanistan's past should continue to serve as a model for the future—yet only for so long as present-day Afghanistan keeps resembling the country it was in the past. Barfield identified several demographic factors that suggest major impending change. One is urbanization; the populations of some provincial cities have tripled since the 1970s. Another is youth; the majority of Afghanistan's current population was born after the Soviet Union's withdrawal. This new generation of Afghans, Barfield said, sees the country quite differently than do its elders.

The first commentator, J. Alexander Thier of the U.S. Institute of Peace, concurred with Barfield that decentralized governance works best in Afghanistan. "What matters to 90 percent of Afghans," he said, are concerns that are not addressed in the country's national constitution. This is because these concerns—such as the restoration of stability—can only be addressed on the local level. The "fundamental lesson," he concluded, is that prospects for stabilization and other progress in Afghanistan are dependant on "local drivers"—such as local-level incentives for positive change.

The second commentator, William B. Wood of the National War College (and Washington's immediate past ambassador to Afghanistan), took issue with Barfield's preference for the Swiss cheese model of governance. He argued that such a system "does not meet the needs" of the United States, because a decentralized system—in which the central government's writ is limited—can strengthen militants. Washington's task, he said, is to establish a level of stability in Afghanistan such that "no part" of the country poses a threat to the United States. Nevertheless, Wood acknowledged that the way forward lies not in "unitary rule," but instead in "finding local leaders who enjoy the support of their constituencies."

Wood underscored the enormous challenge of stabilizing Afghanistan, a task made particularly difficult because, at least to Americans, the country appears so different and "wholly foreign." The other panelists were somewhat more optimistic about prospects for positive outcomes. Though Thier conceded that the Karzai government is unlikely to consent to the shifts in power-sharing required to boost local governance, he insisted that strengthening governance at the local level "does not require a radical break" with current policies. And Barfield noted that despite all of its problems, Afghanistan is in no danger of falling apart: Its people are confident, and national identity remains strong.

By Michael Kugelman
Robert M. Hathaway, Director, Asia Program

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