Posted by: Christian | June 30, 2008

Afghanistan’s Surrender to the Modern State

Is the Western model of the state inappropriate for Afghanistan?

Here lies the root of our postcolonial misery: not in our inability to think out new forms of the modern community, but in our surrender to the old forms of the modern state. – Partha Chatterjee, The Nation and its Fragments, 1993.

Nazif Shahrani, an Afghan-American anthropologist at my alma mater, Indiana University, applied Chatterjee’s postcolonial theories to Afghanistan and the prospects for statebuilding there (1). Chatterjee’s argument is that the Western model for a state is often an inappropriate model in much of the developing and post-colonial world. The chapter Shahrani wrote in 1998 described the relationship between the Afghan central government and the communities that historically have operated with a high degree of autonomy. The process described is one of local communities being encroached upon by a predatory central government and then recapturing their autonomy as soon as the center weakens. A prime example of the intrusion of the center would be the rule of Amir Adbul Rahman Khan (supported by British subsidies and weapons).

Amir Abdur Rahman Khan

The autonomy of the local communities during his reign were damaged to such a degree that it took the an event as traumatic as the Soviet Afghan War and the following civil war to destroy the grip of the center. During this time, according to Shahrani and other scholars, many local communities reverted to their autonomous form. A caveat here is that many of the new leaders in the periphery based their power on the gun and foreign patronage, rather than agricultural wealth and personally generated patronage as before. But to describe every local leader in this manner is/was an exaggeration. However, the idea of an evil warlord in every village won the day as those Afghans who could effectively communicate to the West stressed the need for a hyper-centralized government (Shahrani identifies these Afghans as members of the Western educated diaspora). And the West saw a mutually beneficial design here whereby they would only need to deal with one person, rather than a host of local actors. So they chose to go with an ideal, rather than a reality. And the “ideal” was underfunded and grossly neglected.

President Karzai

Shahrani noted and accurately predicted (in 1998) the “well-worn formula” for creating a government in Afghanistan in the post-Soviet era:

…all of these proposals contain two often-tried and tired components: (1) forming a broad-based transitional central government made up of an apolitical (politically indifferent?) group of technocrats; and (2) charging the transitional government with the eventual task of creating a permanently elected central government. In this well-worn formula, the entire problem is reduced to getting the parties to agree on the right kind of mix of ethnolinguistic and sectarian representation, in the so-called ‘broad-based coalition government.’ Unfortunately, such governments have been formed time and again over the last five years, and more may be proposed and formed during the months and years to come, but without any positive outcome to bring peace in Afghanistan.

Much of the rest of the chapter by Shahrani deals with the issue of Pashtun leadership domination of the central government and its power over the 60% of Afghanistan that is non-Pashtun. Shahrani and others later, after 9-11, made the case for a federal arrangement in Afghanistan (2). Many people lobbied against this arrangement, believing that a federal arrangement would lead to the disintegration of Afghanistan. What would have happened in such a system post-2001 is unknown, but what is known is that the abuses, thefts and power grabs by allies and elements of the central government have pushed many people into the insurgency (among other factors), or merely disillusioned them with the false hope of accountable democratic governance. Another caveat is that these abuses often take the form of the central government taking a side in a local power struggle. The actors on the periphery are sometimes not much liked by their “constituents.” But other times they are heroes.

Dostum: Hero or villain? It depends on your perspective.

Rashid Dostum

Dostum is an example of one of the most powerful peripheral actors. Generally I’m talking about those at a much lower level on the village or extended village or qawm level (and therefore usually more accountable and sensitive to local needs).

All caveats and counter-arguments considered, one must acknowledge that a hypercentralised state based on a European concept that, as Shahrani notes, is being discarded by Europe, (and that I would note would being inappropriate for the US, Canada, India, Australia, etc…) is “problematic” to put it euphemistically. At the moment Afghanistan is centralised in law but not in fact. The ability of the central government to penetrate the local communities, along the lines of Joel Migdal’s state-society relations framework (3), is still weak. But its ability to harm and alienate these communities is considerable.

What do the people in these local communities want? Anecdotally, the want the state to provide services, protect them from harm and to act as an honest arbiter for local disputes. I would argue that many exasperated people in Afghanistan’s periphery are, at this point, willing to settle for a strong central state, but only if it is benevolent. The strong state is there in law but not in practice (beyond governor’s appointments) and the “benevolent” aspect is still often aspirational.

Statebuilding and governance is not my area of expertise. But I am attempting to build up an entry-level expertise on micro-societies within Afghanistan. And my sense is that the current model for statebuilding in Afghanistan is mostly ignoring these people and their interests.


(1) Shahrani, M. Nazif. 1998. ‘The Future of the State and the Structure of Community Governance in Afghanistan’, in William Maley (editor) Fundamentalism Reborn? Afghanistan and the Taliban. New York: New York University Press.

(2) Federations (October 2001 Issue).

(3) Migdal, Joel S. 1988. Strong Societies and Weak States. Princeton University Press.


  1. Valid arguments can be made for both a strong centralized state and for a set-up where the periphery exercises greater autonomy. Shahrani, who identifies with a population that has suffered from the domination of a Pashtun-controlled central government, has been advocating a devolved arrangement for decades.

    Clearly this is a matter for the Afghans to decide and now isn’t the time for them to do so. Pragmatic considerations should drive the administration of the country, but it wouldn’t be unreasonable for those agencies and organizations involved in Afghanistan to acknowledge that this is a delicate issue that will have to be addressed. In the meantime, the international community should be cognizant of the debate and should keep it in mind as it moves to bolster administration and governance, especially that at the sub-national level.

    For example, measures that build up the strength and autonomy of provinces can be seen as fostering devolution. This may be resisted not only by those who seek to maintain a centralized system but also by populations who regard the current provincial and district boundaries as having been drawn in a manner that intentionally works to their disadvantage. (This issue is largely ignored by most of those at PRTs and elsewhere who are intent on building up sub-national institutions at the provincial level.)

    The number of Afghanistan’s sub-national units whether they be provinces, districts, or regions has fluctuated throughout Afghanistan’s modern history. They have been established based on considerations that have little to do with the interests of the people or with any model of efficient governance or administration.

    Much can now be done in Afghanistan to provide more effectively for the needs of the Afghan people with the current administrative arrangement. That should be our focus rather than in fixing and strengthening the administrative divisions and arrangements that few Afghans find satisfactory.

    As to when the time will be ripe for the Afghans to confront the relation between the center and the periphery, that’s hard to say. But now is clearly not the time.


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