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by Sam Holliday

A retired military officer and frequent contributor to this journal presents the case for a decentralized structure for this troubled country which has seen so little peace or progress since the Soviet invasion.

Our country needs a strategy for Afghanistan; even though there is no certainty any specific strategy will insure stability in South Asia. Whether General McChrystal gets all or only some of the troops he requested, it may be necessary to modify his counterinsurgency strategy. Therefore, a shift to a federation for Afghanistan should be considered seriously.

Clarity on a strategy is long overdue. It was thought that a strategy for Afghanistan had been determined in March when General McChrystal was selected to be Obama’s military commander in Afghanistan. It was assumed that the president would support Generals McChrystal and Petraeus in their efforts to win what the president had repeatedly called a “war of necessity”. Yet recent events show there is no clear policy or strategy for Afghanistan. While the White House states that it is still committed to disrupting al-Quada and denying that terrorist organization safe haven in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, there is confusion on how this is to be accomplished. This confusion has many negative consequences.

The revised counterinsurgency strategy, which the Administration is likely to adopt, does not mean there will be no more debates over what to do in the area called Afghanistan or how that effort is to be resourced. There will still be the arguments that have always plagued irregular warfare and stability operations:

  • The relationship of economic and political development to the establishment of security.
  • The relative merits of bottom-up (phoenix) and top-down (neo-colonial) approaches to creating and maintaining stability (a climate of order and satisfaction).
  • The merits of hard power versus soft power.
  • The best way to build a state or a nation.
  • The utility of Western democracy versus other forms of governance.

Partisans will advance all of the tried and true arguments on these issues as long as war-fighting forces are in Afghanistan. And always regarding any strategy there will be the basic question: Why?

Of course, we cannot know how Generals McChrystal and Petraeus will execute the new strategy. However we can make suggestions.

The Opportunity
In accordance with the strategy outlined by General McChrystal in his address to the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) on 1 October 2009 there is an opportunity that should be seized. Rather than a unitary state, an Afghanistan Federation of self-governing provinces should be created. This would provide the best hope of bringing stability to Afghanistan as soon as possible at the lowest possible cost.

To date the United States, NATO and the UN have followed an approach that is best described as neo-colonial. The overriding goal of this approach has been to establish a sovereign central government in Kabul that duplicates Western ideas about democracy and elections. The result has been a focus on the centralization of authority in order to create and maintain legitimacy, the rule of law, and administrative capability to govern all of the area called Afghanistan. A continuation of the neo-colonial approach would be a tragic mistake.

It is time to abandon the top-down approach and to establish a federation of self-governing provinces. While Afghanistan has long been divided into provinces, districts, cities and villages these have only been administrative units of the central government. Now it is time to give the provinces, districts, cities and villages the authority to govern and to represent their people.

What McChrystal described as the right approach on 1 October 2009 is compatible with the bottom-up (phoenix) approach to build a new and better Afghanistan out of the ashes of the past tragic years. The goal would be to replace the context that breed’s radicalism and hatred for America with one that values freedom, cooperation, self-determination, stability, and self-sufficiency. McChrystal also accurately described the environment and situation currently found in Afghanistan. He then answered three questions: Who is winning? Can We Succeed? Why bother? This essay discusses some issues that McChrystal did not address, but which would support the strategy he outlined.

The Neo-Colonial Approach and Non-Western Democracy
In the Nineteenth Century many technologically advanced countries established preeminent influence over less-developed, indigenous people throughout the world. Since colonialists justified their actions in terms of noble and humanitarian goals, it was often referred to as “the white man’s burden.” Today neo-colonialists use different words (democracy building, human rights, equal justice under law, universal suffrage, a free press, a free market economic system, and modernization) to justify the similar attitudes and actions—although they are quick to claim that they are not colonialists because they are not seeking economic dependency. Since 2002, efforts to create a new Afghanistan state are best seen as a continuation of the conventional wisdom of the foreign policy establishments in the U.S. and Europe and by the UN since 1945.

Rather than impose Western ideas of democracy on Afghanistan, the aim should be to build on the non-Western ideas of democracy. Starting in Greece, Western democracy was built on individualism and supremacy of state authority through the rule of law. However, there is a long tradition of non-Western democracy in China, India, and Africa that is built on groups of individuals (families, tribes, clans, guilds, or villages). The regulation of most social, cultural, and economic activities should be left to the myriad of local groups and assemblies in the area referred to as Afghanistan.

However, this does not mean Americans should not seek to spread the principles and ideals upon which our country was founded—only that we should do this through example and persuasion rather than attempting to impose them through power. Surely we would encourage the Afghans to recognize the unalienable rights that each individual received from the Creator. Surely we would encourage the Afghans to include in their Constitution ways to protect civil rights.

Both Western and non-Western democracy are ways to achieve the basic requirements of sovereignty: (1) a monopoly on the use of force, and (2) the ability to regulate behavior. Western democracies usually achieve this with a central government controlling military force and having the authority to make, and adjudicate, laws. Non-western democracies have traditionally used militias to insure order at the local level, and have relied on customs and traditions to regulate most behavior–using law primarily for criminal acts. It is true that democracy means majority rule, together with the protection of minorities. But majority rule does not necessarily mean that the faction with the greatest numbers rules.

The assumption that all votes are equal is the bedrock of democracy. Yet democracy says nothing about who are the enfranchised citizens that can vote. In Fifth Century B.C. Athens, during its early, growth stage, it was one in eighteen of the total population. At the same time among the Lichchhavis, in northern India, it was one in twenty. Until the end of the Nineteenth Century only property owners were allowed to vote because only they were said to have a stake in the success of a country. In the West since 1887, and among UN bureaucrats since 1945, universal suffrage, “One Man One Vote”, and elections by individuals have been seen as essential aspects of democracy—and they are still considered aspects of colonialism by much of the world. In the past century democracy in the West has moved past political equality to forced equality in economic, social and cultural matters. With this has emerged what history has recorded as the defects of democracy in its older, decline stage: (1) the poor being able to vote themselves the wealth of the rich, (2) the consolidation of power in the central government, (3) an increase in government employees to enforce equality, (4) an emphasis on diversity, rather than on merit and a common identity, and (5) an inability of the country to be united behind foreign policies.

Afghanistan’s Future
For the immediate future Afghanistan needs a self-regulating equilibrium among the various factions, so that the ruling majority is not controlled by those who support Islamic militancy.  The ruling of Afghanistan must be by a union of the multiplicity of religious, tribal, secular, regional, and commercial factions in that country that want a better future for Afghanistan. Governance should not reflect conformity to any specific ideology or downward control from the central government. It should reflect bottom-up governance to achieve a better life for all Afghans through the phoenix approach.

Democracy in Afghanistan should be that associated with the early, growth stage of all states and nations, not with the older, decline stage. Toward this end suffrage in Afghanistan should not be universal, and the votes of individuals in Western style elections should not be the only way to select those to represent the people of Afghanistan.

The New Strategy for Afghanistan
It is time to break away from this conventional wisdom and instead to seek the most efficient and effective way to establish governmental structures and processes that provide some representation for all of the people of Afghanistan.  The neo-colonial approach has already produced several dead-end solutions: (1) selection of a plausible democrat as the leader for a unitary Afghan government, (2) selection of members of a centralized Afghan government, and (3) direct Western style elections for the Afghan government in 2004, 2005 and 2009.

There is another alternative with greater potential and it is time for a basic change in governance through the phoenix approach:

  • Tribal, religious, and secular leaders in loya jirgas for each of the 34 provinces would establish provincial, district and local governmental structures and processes, as each province deems appropriate. Customs and traditions of the Afghans would determine how leaders are selected—not Western political thought on democracy. The United States and other countries could assist the local leaders establish effective governments in each province, but they would not attempt to establish a unitary government in Kabul.
  • Current officials of the central government should remain temporarily in place, but their authority and power should be reduced.
  • Elections should be held within two months in each province, and then the provincial governments would name their representatives to a new National Assembly.
  • The new National Assembly would confirm, or replace, all officials of the central government.
  • The new National Assembly would revise the constitution, as they deemed appropriate, and confirm the Head of State.

After all of this is accomplished and there is a functioning federal government and governments in each province, district, city and village, the Afghans themselves can start the process of building a new Afghanistan. And the war-fighting forces of the US and NATO/ISAF could slowly be drawn down, as Afghan security forces are capable of handling internal security.

NATO and the U.S. have never had Stability Forces with the appropriate language skills, cultural knowledge, organization, and training. Ideally the U.S. and other countries should have had Stability Forces ready to go into each village, city, district and province soon after 2002. There were war-fighting forces to conduct search-and-destroy raids. There were dreams of a government in Kabul that reflected Western values, and macro economic plans for all of Afghanistan.  And the U.S. war-fighting forces did adapt to the problems it confronted and achieved successes in clearing Afghanistan of both al-Queda and the Taliban.

Yet the neo-colonial orientation prevented a rapid move to a stable Afghan state through holding and building. The Afghan Army and police were ineffective, rather than providing local security for the Afghan people.  It would have been better to move toward a federation of self-governing provinces immediately after al-Queda and the Taliban were driven out of Afghanistan.

How, then, can a federation of 34 self-governing provinces (welaytats) be established in Afghanistan?

The model for a new Afghanistan could be based on Nineteenth Century Switzerland with its cantons, or Lebanon with its rotation of key posts, or Malaysia, or Tunisia, or the United Arab Emirates.

  • Authority should be decentralized as much as possible, and the daily lives of the Afghan people should be governed by local customs and traditions.
  • Each of the 34 provinces should have a governor elected by the people of that province, police capable of providing local security, and a legal system of laws and procedure for the punishment of crimes and the resolution of all disputes, other than those of trade and commerce.
  • The federal government in Kabul should control the armed forces and be capable of (1) defending Afghanistan’s borders, (2) preventing the secession of any province, and (3) preventing any province from being a safe haven for Islamic militants. It should also be responsible for foreign policy, currency and monetary policy, the coordination of inter-province activities, and law regarding trade and commerce.

At this time it would be foolhardy to attempt to build a Western democratic Afghan nation-state, although a non-Western democratic federation could provide stability and a government that cooperates in the battle against Islamic militants who want to establish a caliphate. This would be government of the people, by the people and for the people. Recent events show that there should be no delay. Also such a federation could provide conditions for the Afghans to achieve their own dignity through self-evolution into a free, orderly, open, and self-sufficient country.

As General McChrystal said: “An unstable Afghanistan not only negatively affects what happens within its borders but also affects its neighbors. Afghanistan is, in many ways, one of the keys to stability in south Asia. A state that can provide its own security is important to all international security.”

Copyright © 2009 Armiger Cromwell Center, Atlanta, GA 30319.

Sam C. Holliday is a graduate of the   U. S. Military Academy at West Point, a former director of Stability Studies at the U. S. Army War College, and a retired army colonel. He earned a master’s degree in public affairs from the University of Pittsburgh and a doctorate in international relations from the University of South Carolina.


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