[This article is part of a roundtable on "Ignoring the Local in Afghanistan." Click here to read the introduction to the roundtable and the other articles in this collection.]
According to Benjamin Barber (2013), cities are typically the space where citizens exercise their citizenship rights and express their democratic freedoms in developed countries with major industrial economies. In Afghanistan, however, impoverished rural villagers, who lack economic opportunities, live in extreme poverty and are caught in a conflict fueled by various ideologies and regional powers. Meanwhile, Kabul's affluent elites live in the comfort of their fortified homes in the city center—often neglecting the realities of the broader Afghan population. The existence of an urban-rural divide in Afghanistan, resulting from an unfair distribution of power and resources, has been a tragic reality of Afghan society. This divide has contributed to successive regime changes in the country, as inequality and a dangerous rural-urban gap place a significant burden on any political authority. The staggering levels of inequality in Afghanistan, encompassing wealth, income, political status, and socio-economic conditions, heighten the probability of regime change and the fragility of state institutions.
This essay offers a comprehensive analysis of the pervasive implication of the urban-rural divide in Afghanistan—as a byproduct of the top-down modern state-building approach adopted in the early nineteenth century and most recently from 2001 to 2021. Despite numerous endeavors aimed at state-building, predominantly through foreign intervention, Afghanistan has failed to attain lasting stability. The urban populace, notably in Kabul, has reaped significant benefits from modernization initiatives and has been supportive of them. However, rural dwellers have resisted such efforts and feel disenfranchised by them. This essay contends that the lack of equitable access to power and resources, resulting from centralized power, has directly contributed to the escalation of insurgency in rural areas and political upheaval in Afghanistan. In particular, the expensive state-building project led by the international community in the early 21st century was poorly guided by political actors who favored the establishment of centralized political institutions and neglected to transfer authority to peripheral regions that have historically governed themselves. This resulted in widespread corruption, empowered insurgent groups, and persistently undermined state institutions, making the collapse of the state inevitable in the absence of external support.
Overlooked Local Socio-Political Order
The international community's post-2001 stabilization efforts in Afghanistan, while well-intentioned, contributed to the deepening urban-rural divide. Following the tragic events of 9/11, the military intervention through "Operation Enduring Freedom" initially instilled hope in Afghans, including rural villagers, that democracy would bring peace, stability, and economic development for all. This aspiration incentivized Afghans to participate in the 2004 presidential election and the 2005 parliamentary elections; however, subsequent state-building efforts failed to create a robust incentive for sustained participation. Decision-makers placed undue emphasis on creating a strong central government in Afghanistan to foster unity, disregarding the fact that the country's pluralistic society had long been governed by traditional local institutions such as "shuras" or "jirgas" and local councils. The 2004 centrist constitution overlooked these traditional institutions though these councils have been an integral part of Afghan society for centuries and have played a vital role in decision-making and conflict resolution at the local level. Furthermore, the government failed to establish local institutions such as village and district councils, and no elections were held at the local level despite the exorbitant costs of the state-building process and constitution’s mandates.
Traditional networks, based on profound ties of kinship and patronage in the shape of traditional councils, have long existed in the absence of the central state at the local level. However, they are not immune to criticism. Over the past twenty years both national and international human rights organizations have raised concerns about the councils’ unfair treatment of women and minorities in various types of disputes, especially criminal cases. Furthermore, proponents of modernist thought have frequently criticized traditional councils for being exclusionary and undemocratic, as well as for perpetuating inequalities in power and access to resources. The modern practice of state-building therefore views such traditional organs as part of the problem rather than the solution (Roy, 2002).
Yet establishing councils and conducting local elections at the district and village level had the potential to bring about several benefits. Firstly, it could have enabled citizens to participate actively in the decision-making process, providing a sense of ownership and engagement in local governance. This, in turn, could have helped to build trust between citizens and the government, which is a crucial element for the stability of any democratic society. In addition, establishing decision-making bodies and democratic components closer to citizens could have enhanced the effectiveness and efficiency of governance by allowing for more responsive and tailored solutions to local problems. Local councils could have also helped to ensure that resources and services were allocated in a fair and equitable manner across different communities, which is essential for promoting social justice and reducing inequalities. Moreover, local elections could have provided a platform for citizens to express their political preferences and hold elected officials accountable for their actions. This could have helped to promote transparency and reduce the potential for corruption or misuse of power. Finally, by empowering local communities and promoting grassroots participation, local councils and elections could have helped to build a stronger and more resilient civil society, an essential element for the long-term stability and development of any country.
However, there were several challenges associated with establishing local councils and conducting elections at the district and village level. These included issues such as inadequate funding, lack of capacity building, limited resources, and potential resistance from traditional power structures. There could also have been challenges related to ensuring the participation of women and marginalized groups in the decision-making process. Overcoming these challenges would have required a sustained commitment from government officials, civil society organizations, and the international community to ensure that local governance structures were established and supported effectively.
Key Features of Afghanistan's Post-2001 Order and Its Eventual Collapse
To achieve success in Afghanistan, it is crucial to understand the Afghan mindset, which involves grasping culture and engaging respectfully (Miakhel, 1995). Afghanistan is a diverse society, with varying languages, cultures, and ethnicities, and with more than 74% of its population residing in rural areas (World Bank, 2018). Therefore, the rapid modernization of Afghan society through a quick-fix approach, as attempted in the past, had the opposite results, leading to instability and the disintegration of the system.
After the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001, there was an expectation that the new order would be established based on the realities of Afghan society. This involved accounting for the country's ethnic and cultural diversity and ensuring that people were involved in the decision-making process at various levels. Yet the architects of the new political order, who were primarily Afghan technocrats living in the West, had limited understanding of the recent political and social developments that had occurred as a result of the Soviet–Afghan War of 1979-1989 and the Afghan Civil War of 1992-1996. This lack of understanding led to the creation of a new constitution that failed to offer meaningful checks and balances, resulting in the concentration of power in Kabul.
The new constitution of 2004 drew its inspiration from the monarchy constitution of 1964, a time when the gap between urban and rural areas was not very pronounced. It gave the president more power than a king (Shahrani, 2018) without providing adequate mechanisms to hold the government accountable. The failure of the new system to provide effective checks and balances had severe consequences for Afghanistan's political stability and governance. The excessive concentration of power and authority in the executive made it challenging to create a government that answered to its citizens. Subsequently, this undermined the government's ability to address critical issues, such as corruption and security, which hindered the country's economic development and undermined the population's confidence in the government.
Under the 2004 constitution, the president was given unlimited authority while popular institutions such as the National Council were not given enough power to hold the government accountable. As a result, political leaders became more interested in presidential election contests and conflicts rather than attending parliament, which weakened the system's ability to fight corruption and stabilize the country. The political crisis resulting from the presidential elections of 2014 and 2019 was a severe blow to Afghanistan's already fragile political system. The contentious elections and the subsequent disputes over the results caused political instability and deepened mistrust between the government and the people. The elections were marred by allegations of fraud, vote-rigging, and other irregularities. The two main candidates, Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, both claimed victory, and the political deadlock that followed lasted for months. The dispute was finally resolved when the two candidates agreed to a power-sharing agreement, with Ghani serving as president and Abdullah as the chief executive officer.
The power-sharing agreement, however, failed to end the political tensions and rivalries between the two sides. The constant struggle for power and influence between the Ghani and Abdullah camps further deepened the political crisis and weakened the government's legitimacy. The political instability and infighting also provided a fertile ground for insurgent groups like the Taliban to gain strength and influence. The insurgents exploited the government's weakness and the people's disillusionment with the political elite, making it easier for them to recruit and expand their control over the country.
Unfortunately, these internal conflicts also had significant consequences for Afghanistan's relationships with its international supporters. In particular, the contested elections and subsequent political turmoil eroded the trust and confidence of the international community in Afghanistan's ability to govern itself effectively. Afghanistan's international supporters had invested heavily, providing aid, resources, and assistance to promote political stability and economic growth. When the political crisis strained these relationships, causing many supporters to question the wisdom of continuing to invest in Afghanistan's future, it undermined the progress made by the investments up to that point and the country’s efforts to build a stable and prosperous future.
Kabul: An Isolated Island
For the past two decades, Kabul has been an isolated island, cut off from the rest of Afghanistan by corruption and political instability. Following 2001, most donors and international organizations committed to facilitating democratization in Afghanistan established their operations in the country's capital city. Kabul, along with a handful of other urban areas, served as a representation of democratic development. The elites in Kabul embraced modernization and adopted the language of human rights and democracy. Conversely, many of the country's outlying regions could barely articulate anything beyond their traditional religious practices. The lack of exposure of Kabul's population to the rural regions of Afghanistan, such as the Nuristan mountains and valleys, has led to a significant disparity in cultural norms and values. As a result, the research conducted by foreigners in Kabul cannot be applied to the entire nation (Ahwar, 2018).
According to Qadam Shah (2022), this centralized approach to “modern state-building” served only the interests of Afghan elites and their foreign supporters and undermined the will of the Afghan population and Afghan civil society (Shah, 2022; See also Murtazashvili, 2022; Shahrani, 2013). This led to growing frustrations among citizens and widened the gap between the state and ordinary Afghans. This separation was particularly evident in rural areas, where people felt neglected and ignored by the government. The Taliban took advantage of this lack of trust and launched a campaign of violence and terror that the government struggled to counter effectively. Despite the support of international organizations and donor countries, limited military and logistical support hampered the government's efforts to resist the Taliban's increasing aggression. Residents were unwilling to collaborate with the central government, leaving the state vulnerable to the Taliban's violent attacks. The result was the collapse of districts and provinces without significant resistance.
The situation in Afghanistan came to a head in the summer of 2021 when President Ashraf Ghani fled Kabul along with most of the country's political leaders, leaving the people of Afghanistan at the mercy of the Taliban regime. The lack of a strong, functional government meant that Afghanistan was particularly vulnerable to being overrun by extremist groups, and the people of Afghanistan have suffered the consequences. As the people have endured decades of war, violence, and instability, the lack of an effective and responsive government that truly serves the needs of its citizens has only intensified these challenges, leaving the country in a precarious state with the Taliban in control and the future uncertain.
The persistent issue of the urban-rural divide in Afghanistan was exacerbated by the centralized state-building approach adopted by the country's post-2001 leadership. The Taliban capitalized on this divide, ultimately leading to the collapse of the government in 2021 in the absence of support from the international community. Despite significant investment from the international community over the previous two decades, the lack of equal access to resources and power, combined with the centralized government in Kabul’s neglect of rural communities, created a fertile ground for the Taliban to regroup, recruit, and expand their control.
The absence of local institutions and elections at the district and village level resulted in a lack of citizen engagement in the decision-making process, thereby contributing to political instability and weak governance. Moreover, the concentration of power in Kabul and political power struggles among leaders contributed to a fragile central state, widespread corruption, and a broader gap between the government and ordinary Afghans.
The sudden and precipitous fall of the government in 2021 underscores the exigency of a government that is responsible to its citizenry, emphasizes its necessities, and attends to its apprehensions. This necessitates considerable investment in cultivating confidence between the government and the citizens, strengthening local institutions and governance frameworks, and enhancing the provision of fundamental services. It is imperative for Afghanistan to achieve enduring stability and prosperity by addressing the urban-rural divide and promoting equitable access to power and resources.
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