Alan Bock: The Road Not Noticed Decentralized Government and Nation-Building

Now that the Taliban seem to have been defeated, now that Al Qaeda seems to be on the run – although as of this writing Osama (Usama?) bin Laden still seems to be alive and at large – a few people are talking about the shape of a future government in Afghanistan. Various Afghan factions under the supervision of Europeans and other international supposed experts, have cobbled together an interim government in a meeting in Germany. But few observers expect a smooth path to a government whose authority is recognized and respected widely enough to avoid factional infighting any time soon. The British might take the lead commanding an international "peacekeeping" force, although Prime Minister Tony Blair has expressed a degree of reluctance. It would be ironic if the British rode to effective political power in Afghanistan – a country that frustrated them repeatedly during the old imperial days – on the shoulders of American military might and Russian-backed Northern Alliance troops on the ground. But it might happen. However, the one issue on which Afghans have historically agreed is opposition to foreign troops in Afghanistan for extended periods of time. So even if the Brits do lead international forces for a while, it seems unlikely that they will establish a permanent political presence. They might not even want to do so. So the question of a government that might last longer than a few months or years without precipitating another outbreak of civil war will remain. HUMANITARIAN CONCERNS? To a certain extent it will matter little to the United States or even to Europe if "nation-building" fails in Afghanistan so long as the country doesn't continue to harbor terrorists able and willing to foray out into other parts of the world. But ordinary human beings in any country can wish the Afghans better than they are likely to get, out of fellow-feeling for human beings rather than a desire to influence or control a country that has long served as a pawn to neighbors near and far. It is likely that the powermongers will prevail in the near term. Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Russia, Tajikistan and oilmen worldwide all believe they have an interest in the future shape of Afghanistan, beyond the simple interest of the United States in making sure the country doesn't harbor terrorists who could attack these shores again. So the political and ethnic struggles that have dominated much of Afghan history are likely to continue – in different forms, with different alliances (note the recent side-changing) and different interests, but with plenty of bloodshed. As a human being, rather than necessarily as an American, that saddens me. I believe there's irony in the confusion and frustration with which most observers view Afghanistan's likely future, because there is an American model – although not exclusively American by a long shot – that could be helpful in Afghanistan and other multiethnic countries, and in fact would meld rather nicely with Afghan traditions. Unfortunately, most American government leaders don't understand the model and most members of the vaunted "international community"explicitly reject it. Still, it's worth putting out there as a possibility. FEDERALISM AND DECENTRALIZATION I speak, of course, of what might be called the federalist model – something like the original U.S. Constitution rather than the regime into which that model has evolved or changed through de facto revolution. There are other terms for essentially the same concept. Roman Catholics have a tradition called subsidiarity which the current Pope has mentioned from time to time. Some call it devolution of power. And without necessarily having a label, Afghanistan has used a similar model in the past. The idea is to have a weak and limited central government, perhaps confined to relations with other countries and maybe a judicial system – one that is not powerful enough to oppress minorities – with most governmental functions carried out at the most local possible level. It would help if it were easy to secede from the central government, but that option is not absolutely required. It would be essential to allow complete freedom of internal migration without the need to show papers or get permission from the authorities. The main thing is to have governing institutions that are close enough to the people to be accountable to them, so people with different backgrounds and preferences – whether the preferences are based on region or ethnic origin – can have the kind of government they prefer. So long as migration is permitted, local governments might even end up competing with one another to attract adherents. AFGHAN APPLICATIONS The possible advantages of such a system in Afghanistan should be apparent. There is no majority ethnic or tribal group in Afghanistan. According to a recent Time piece on the country's prospects, "The Pashtun are the largest minority, making up some 38 percent of the population, but like the Tajik (25 percent), Hazara (19 percent) and Uzbek (6 percent) they are a part of a group whose majority lives in another country. Most Pashtuns live in Pakistan, Tajiks in Tajikistan, Uzbeks in Uzbekistan, and while the Hazaras are not ethnically linked with Iran, their Shiite brand of Islam gives them a common identity with the Islamic republic distinct from their fellow Afghans." Afghanistan's neighbors have traditionally meddled in Afghan politics, and Afghanistan was a focus of hostility and maneuvering during the "great game" played between the Russian and British empires in the 19th-century. This might argue for partitioning the country into smaller entities that might think about exercising the option of joining with those of similar ethnicity across borders that are more than a bit arbitrary and were largely created by foreign imperialists. On the other hand, there seems to be something of an Afghan national identity with an appeal beyond simple ethnic identity. Certainly Afghans of different ethnic origins have managed repeatedly to unite long enough to kick out armed foreigners in their midst trying to bring them the dubious benefits of civilization (or to use them in great-power games). The British, Russians, Soviets and even foreign Taliban or Al Qaeda fighters have all learned this at some cost in blood. KEEPING OPTIONS OPEN An essentially federalist system (what you call it matters little so long as the essential characteristics are there) would allow a range of options to be exercised. So long as the central government's authority is limited enough that minorities don't have to fear (too much) if it is captured by some other group, there should be little (or at least less) reason for bloody battles and squabbles on the national level. If the option of secession or joining with ethnic compatriots in some other country is left open – preferably on the basis of an overwhelming supermajority sentiment – the central government will have less incentive to want to aggrandize its power and repress minorities. It would also be preferable to make the entire country a free-trade zone, preventing local governments from imposing discriminatory taxes or tariffs on goods produced in other parts of the country. The fact that the United States is a continent-wide free-trade zone was a major (and largely underappreciated) factor in the country's growth in prosperity over the years. Preventing the use of discriminatory economic weapons by local warlords also reduces the danger from one more potential source of conflict and hostility. It would be important to promote this idea not as an American model to be imposed on Afghanistan, but as a way of systematizing and regularizing what has been Afghani practice through most of its history. Almost every Afghan I have talked to has noted that the country has always had a relatively weak central government. Many observers view this as a disadvantage, and considering the history of meddling by neighbors one can understanding a sneaking desire to have a central government at least strong enough to resist such efforts. But if a central government of limited powers that allows a high degree of local autonomy is seen as a strength and a benefit and a source of pride, the country might be on its way to a better future. FORGETTING THE LESSONS The main reason such a scenario is unlikely, however – unless the Afghans figure it out for themselves and kick the international observers out – is that the kind of people likely to be involved in peacekeeping or nation-building efforts on a professional basis find the idea of decentralism and localism not just somewhat backward and old-fashioned – a model we have moved beyond – but almost literally incomprehensible. Those who have moved into positions of authority in nation-states and international organizations are almost all relentless centralizers who believe that the key to civilized life is the kind of large-scale bureaucratic institutions they happen to inhabit. I think it is safe to say, for example, that the average Eurocrat doesn't see himself as I see him – as part of a parasitic growth on a society that developed enough prosperity through centuries of relatively decentralized political rule enhanced by relatively free trade that it could tolerate some parasites without dying. They don't see large central bureaucracies as a luxury good always threatening to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. Instead, they see the institutions they control as the real drivers and engines of prosperity and civilized behavior. Almost every institution of higher education in putatively civilized countries reinforces this misconception. MORE HARM THAN GOOD Consequently,when they're tasked with building a third-world nation, their first impulse is to erect all kinds of powerful central institutions staffed by educated and refined people – long before a country has developed anything close to the kind of economic prosperity that would allow it to pay for such institutions. These large, centralized institutions tend to choke a new country before it even has a chance to develop a semblance of economic prosperity or political stability. Instead of facilitating growth and independence, the institutions tend to foster corruption and rip-offs by those who already have (relatively speaking) a degree of wealth or power. So the poor get poorer. So those likely to be charged with assisting countries like Afghanistan are likely to be entirely clueless about efficacious ways to do it. It might be possible for the task to be accomplished by private organizations acting as advisers without any chance at having real power (although most supposed "Non-Governmental-Organizations" in the international realm are more committed to government power than the governments themselves). Until the potential of decentralization is rediscovered and appreciated, nation-building by existing international institutions is likely to be a fruitless and often downright harmful endeavor.

Alan Bock

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