Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

Rethinking Governance in Afghanistan. (the Future of Afghanistan)

Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

Rethinking Governance in Afghanistan. (the Future of Afghanistan)

Article excerpt

Any future government in Afghanistan will have to resolve the problem of representation in a government based on population, and most importantly, on territorial representation that will accommodate most major ethnic groups and regional alignments.


One year after the beginning of Operation Enduring Freedom, Afghanistan is, relatively speaking, a peaceful place. For a country in the throes of civil wars since the early 1970s, there is a sense that placidity reigns. The central government is weak, and frankly, this is welcome. For decades, external donors promoted an ineffective Pashtun hegemony in Kabul while they disregarded outlying areas. Yet the question remains: Can Afghanistan's regional powers, now backed by individual or multilateral external reconstruction agencies and security forces, sustain this relative peace?

Answering this question requires delving into a matter often overlooked in the literature on Afghanistan: the strong link between ethnicity and territory. An investigation into the ethnic territorial situation in Afghanistan suggests a potential path towards successful governance in the country

The overwhelming issue facing a new Afghanistan is not security per se, nor is it, as others have claimed, the creation of a central government with a standing army. The challenge is balancing regional powers--the new khans, or warlords, as they are pejoratively described in the Western press--with their assumed right to govern their supporters and territory in a manner that minimizes human conflict. This article argues that this action can be accomplished only by devolving centralized nation-state power out of Kabul, the perennial seat of conflict.


Afghanistan exists at the moment in a state of suspense. An informal ceasefire after decades of conflict has pervaded the country. Peace, as such, does not prevail so much as an autarchic equilibrium rules. For the first time since the 19th century, no party is dominant, and the Pashtun hegemony has been broken. The Kohestani General Fahim, from the Panjshir valley in the Hindukush, has the envious task of maintaining control of Kabul while regional khans consolidate power. In the run-up to the 2004 elections there will be a jockeying for power that was not forecast in the 2001 Bonn Agreement, but that is hardly a new phenomenon in Afghanistan.

Kabul goes into convulsions every 40 to 50 years. The most recent episode began in 1973 when King Mohammad Zahir Shah, an ethnic Pashtun from the Durrani confederation, was ousted by his cousin in a bloodless coup. Prior to 1973, a rebellion had broken out in 1929 after the British status of protectorate lapsed and local insurgents from Kabul Kohestan exiled the Pashtun king, Amunullah.

Tracing the history of Aghanistan reveals similar outcomes of minimal leadership successes and many catastrophes. Throughout these skirmishes, battles and wars, one feature is clear: The Pashtun claims on an Afghan empire were never realized.

The lessons to be learned from this litany of failed Pashtun rulers are many, but this article focuses on one: For an Afghan state to survive, it must both include representatives of the different ethnic groups and simultaneously account for the complexities of its geographic space and distinctive ties that its residents have to it. (1) Simply put, space, or rather territory, must have representation in any future solution to this perennial problem of conflict. Up until this point, this has not been the case.


Fredrik Barth's book, Ethnic Groups and Boundaries: The Social Organization of Culture Differences, made a substantial contribution to the anthropological debate over ethnic identity when it was published three decades ago. Barth suggested that ethnic identities are not determined by groups assigning them to one another; people invent their own ethnic identities based on how they perceive themselves in relation to other people. …

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