Decentralisation: the final stand of Afghan warlords

In Afghanistan, political goalposts change frequently. This was seen recently in the New York Times op-ed of Ahmad Massoud. As son of late warlord Ahmad Shah Massoud, he argues persuasively for decentralisation as a way forward for the country in the backdrop of talks with the Taliban. A certain degree of historical revisionism is inevitable in every state in order to craft the grand tale of the nation’s birth. As evidenced by this op-ed though, historical revisionism is exceptionally strong in Afghanistan.

Massoud firstly stipulates that the 2004 Afghan constitution, modelled on the royal constitution of 1964 ‘may have assuaged the former monarchy’s beneficiaries, but it completely ignored the fundamental political transformation of the country through the upheavals of the past four decades’. This contention of Massoud’s does not reflect accurately what led to and resulted from the 2004 constitutional arrangement, and ignores realities that would serve as an eyesore for the cause he has now picked up.

Actually, the allies of Massoud’s father in the Northern Alliance were major stakeholders in and beneficiaries of creating the new order. A disproportionate number of ministers and high ranking officials were now from Massoud’s native Panjshir. These included men like his uncle Vice President Ahmad Zia Massoud. Field Marshal Muhammad Qasim Fahim served as Minister of Defense, in Afghanistan’s Meshranu Jirga (upper house of Parliament) and later as Vice President. Yunus Qanuni served as Speaker of the Wolasi Jirga (lower house of parliament).

Massoud writes that ‘in a multiethnic society, the centralized unitary-presidential system has fanned the flames of internal conflict. The problem is exacerbated when a particular person or group holding the presidency resorts to divisive and ethnocentric policies’ and that ‘patronage of a particular group by the head of state has created a major cleavage’. Massoud isn’t entirely wrong here. In Afghanistan, politicians exploiting ethnicity for their own ends is routine.

This is not unique to the current administration, however. A case in point is that of Amrullah Saleh, another Panjsheri and VP of Ashraf Ghani. Formally head of NDS, Saleh opposed ex President Karzai’s overtures to the Taliban due to ethnic animosity. Detailed in Steve Coll’s book Directorate S, Saleh was apprehensive about peace with the Taliban, which he could only conceive through fears this would lead to a perceived Pashtun domination.

Massoud states that his father ‘Ahmad Shah Massoud, the national hero of Afghanistan, was able to unite the ethnic groups under one banner. He brought together important Pashtun, Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara leaders.’ Firstly, it must be stated that the label of ‘national hero’ was imposed posthumously and forcefully by Massoud Snr’s allies. Massoud Snr was exonerated in the popular imagination for his partaking in a civil war with Hekmatyar, Sayyaf, Mazari and Dostum that wrought a level of destruction on Kabul the city is yet to recover from. The claims of him being a ‘national hero’, when placed under scrutiny, fail to hold water.

Neither was Massoud Snr above politicising ethnicity. He partook in tit for tat massacres of Hazaras in Kabul. There are also his inconveniently recorded clips within which he insults Pashtuns. In the below clip, Massoud Snr states ‘they [Pashtuns] instituted a dynastic, tribal form of government in Afghanistan’ whilst ‘these people [Pashtuns] 200-300 years ago had no culture or civilisation, and we see that they have kept these traits until now’.

Most disconcerting, though, is not the article; it was the tweet written captioning his article.

It is true that in the stated time frame, Afghanistan has seen internecine wars of succession, two invasions by British India, a Soviet invasion and occupation and the ongoing US occupation. If, though, he is referring to ‘this’ conflict, this begs the question: which conflict?

Simply put, none of the conflicts in Afghanistan have lasted for two centuries. Furthermore, Afghanistan was a hereditary Emirate when twice invaded by the British, a secular republic when invaded by the Soviets and a Taliban emirate when invaded by the Americans and is now an Islamic Republic. Government style then is the variable, not the constant.

Is Massoud thus implying that the advent of the Afghan state itself in the 19th century was an unwelcome development? Doubtless is the reality that this polity’s establishment accompanied the predominance of Pashtun families at the highest echelons of the establishment. This was predictably so: the state was monarchical, and members of a family belong to the same ethnicity. As demonstrated, this was to the chagrin of many non-Pashtuns, including Massoud Snr. Is Massoud using a unique and ethnically deterministic narrative of history to recast the last two centuries in a radically different light?

The supposedly totalitarian control Kabul commands in the current constitution is belied by reality: Kabul is impotent to exercise its writ over local strongmen. Examples are the embarrassing fiascos with Nizamuddin Qaisary and Atta Muhammad Noor. Kabul is powerless to pursue charges against its own Vice President, instead having him sent to shortlived exile. What is understood need not be written. As described by Ajmal Burhanzoi ‘present political instability is not produced by the mere existence of a nominal centralized government; instead, it is the result of de facto decentralized governance practices’. The same factions who crippled state building cannot be kingmakers in a new settlement.

Massoud complains that talks of decentralisation were absent in the peace deal with the Taliban. Yet he seems to have missed precisely the point: the peace deal was signed between the US and the Taliban, and it detailed complete American non-interference in Afghan affairs. One would assume that by now, Massoud would have learnt foreign interference in domestic Afghan affairs does not end well. Even if this were for his own benefit. Apparently not.

Afghanistan’s problems are more rudimentary than government type. Foremost amongst these is the entrenchment of political dynasties, a product of which is Massoud himself. After all, despite the plethora of posts held by Massoud Snr’s Panjshiri allies over the last 18 years, Panjshir is still one of the poorest provinces in the country. No amount of (de)centralisation when staffed by the same people can yield dividends.

Ahmed-Waleed Kakar
Ahmed-Waleed Kakar
Ahmed-Waleed Kakar is an analyst who focuses on Afghanistan. He attained an MA in World History from King's College London. He also completed a BSc in Politics and History.

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