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Afghanistan's Politics should be local

Published by Foreign Policy/Afpak Channel ( A special project of Foreign Policy and the New American Foundation) on July 14, 2010

Despite only having recently taken over the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan, Gen. David Petraeus has already come into conflict with Afghan President Hamid Karzai over the U.S. military program to equip and train local militias against the Taliban. While Karzai objects to the plan as possibly building "private militias" according to the Washington Post, the argument hints at Karzai's long-standing opposition to strengthening local institutions at the expense of the central government, despite consistent U.S. pressure to improve local governance. But despite these objections, increased support for provincial and local government is necessary if the United States wants to bring stability to Afghanistan.

For the last three decades, Afghans have not had a government that has enabled them to live conflict-free, and therefore have become accustomed to siding with anyone -- the Taliban, international forces, local warlords -- with whom they find temporary support. That support includes protection from other criminal gangs or quick services like dispute resolution mechanisms. In my January trip to one of the most far-flung districts of Wardak province, I met a family who travelled for three days around Ghazni to find one of the Taliban commanders from their area, looking for a resolution of an ongoing land dispute between two families. In half a day the commander was able to resolve a dispute that had lasted years, and the ‘winning' family was able to grow crops on their fields again.

In early July, one female MP from the southern region of Afghanistan told me, "we do not want our people to beheaded and their hands chopped off by the cruel militants, but the people are silent because they don't have any alternative. The government that should protect them rather leaves them behind and runs away. Even some of the former Taliban commanders laugh at me, because I am a people's representative in a government which is not present even in my own district."

However, it is not only the absence of government that is problematic -- appointed and elected representatives misuse their power and swim in an ocean of corruption. For Afghans to have a stake in their local governments there must be a basic level of trust between the two. This trust requires strong local governing structures that take Afghanistan's ethnic and tribal diversity into account. One of the members of the provincial council from Ghazni told me this month that Ghazni's security worsened during the times when governors came from other provinces to serve there, even though viable candidates from the province existed. The outside governors could not work within the dynamics of the ruling tribes in Ghazni and the people could not trust them. He said the governors "came today and will go tomorrow, but it's us dealing with the same elders and tribes forever, so who would we be faithful to?"

In such circumstances when the locals are dubious about their local governor or district authority, military operations led by the international forces that support central government-mandated policies are not welcomed, especially policies related to contracting and purchasing decisions made at the ministerial level without consulting provincial governors or local officials.

Military operations that end up killing civilians do not seem to be ‘winning hearts and minds' and in April 2010, the Associated Press reported on the increased public support of the Taliban in the southern region, largely due to the increased military operations in the region. Polling compiled by the Canadian military reportedly showed that 25% of respondents in Kandahar province held positive views of the Taliban. And the numerous reports of the failure of the police forces and local governance in Marjah demonstrate for Kandaharis that a similar or worse situation could emerge in their province following the long-planned Western offensive there.

Security in Afghanistan has not worsened only because militants became stronger, but because the government failed to live up to hopes of the Afghan people, and villages became vulnerable to militants penetration. In order to ‘break the Taliban's momentum," and "disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda," in the words of President Barack Obama, the United States and its allies should increase funding for operations that would embed international civilian experts in local government institutions in order to provide training and upgrade governance capacity.

International support for local governance structures does not mean opposing the central government. But the aid that comes to Afghanistan as part of international commitment should be allocated at provincial and local level while ensuring that any funding or aid meets international standards of accountability, with careful monitoring to ensure that funds go to projects that will make a difference, and money is not spent on projects that don't benefit Afghans.

If non-military operations can demonstrate tangible achievements -- meaning at a minimum an assurance for Afghans of protection by their local government, quick dispute resolution and at least apparent accountability in government structures -- the Afghan public's support for the Afghan mission will improve. If the government at the sub-national level can begin to provide a more promising life to Afghans, local people in the volatile southern regions will be better able to withstand militant pressure, and build a more stable and peaceful Afghanistan.


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