Considerations for political and institutional reconstruction in Afghanistan

Originally published


Alexander Thier and Jarat Chopra

January 2002


On 11-12 December 2001-one week after the signing of the Bonn Agreement-the Thomas J. Watson Jr. Institute for International Studies at Brown University, in collaboration with the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska, Omaha, hosted a meeting entitled "(Re)establishing Political Structures in Afghanistan". The meeting brought together a mixture of experts on Afghan law, politics, administration, and society and experts on peace operations, reconstruction, and transitional political arrangements. Those in attendance included participants in the Bonn process, former ministers in the Afghan government, current and former US and UN officials, and several eminent scholars. This combination of expertise allowed an in-depth exploration of institutions in Afghanistan, past and present, to be combined with an analysis of the challenges of redeveloping stable political institutions. The purpose of this meeting was to explore the range of options and issues affecting the design and implementation of institution-building efforts. The following report is a reflection of the issues discussed, and incorporates many of the ideas contributed by meeting participants. The recommendations are the responsibility of the authors alone.

This meeting at Brown University extended the work begun a month earlier, when the US Army Peacekeeping Institute at the US Army War College, Carlisle, PA, convened with the Watson Institute another informal meeting that produced comprehensive mission planning considerations at a critical moment-one day after the fall of Kabul. The report of the discussion amongst Afghan experts and experienced operational planners, principally at the UN and in the US Government, was entitled "Planning Considerations for International Involvement in Post-Taliban Afghanistan" and is available on-line (at,, and, or in hard-copy (The Brown Journal of World Affairs, Winter 2002, Volume VIII, Issue 2). This document was circulated widely in planning circles in the UN, US and UK, as well as amongst diverse communities, including coalition militaries, humanitarian organizations and development agencies in the lead up to the Bonn process.

The Bonn formula envisions an all-Afghan Interim, and then Transitional, Authority and Administration, with the international community (including the United Nations and multinational peace forces) playing only an "assistance" role-eschewing therefore the options of partnership with an Afghan government, control of parts of it, or complete governorship over it. This choice is a reversal of the increasingly intrusive trend in transitional administration from the international exercise of executive and legislative powers in Eastern Slavonia, Brcko, and Kosovo to global sovereignty in East Timor. Such an arrangement needs to result in greater popular participation on the one hand-by creating the political space for it during the transitional period; while at the same time achieving harmonization amongst international and Afghan actors participating in the governance and reconstruction process.

While the November "Planning" report gleaned some principles for operating effectively and sustainably in the Afghan context, the next step is to better appreciate the universe of the country's political and institutional evolution and determine how best to (re)establish a stable government in the wake of the war against al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

I. The Constellation of Institutions

The political, social, and governmental environment of Afghanistan is presently a fragmentary array of institutions. These include national institutions (an Interim Authority); local institutions (e.g. village, clan, mosque); regional institutions (e.g. province, party/faction, tribe/ethnic group, domestic NGOs); and international institutions (e.g. UN political and humanitarian agencies, the World Bank, international NGOs, interested states and coalition forces, and an International Security Assistance Force). Due to the ongoing conflict-comprising US-led operations against suspected terrorists and competition between Afghan factions-and the lack of supremacy and order among these institutions, they will continue to compete for influence and resources while Afghanistan's basic conditions evolve. As political authority is reestablished, these institutions should be fashioned into a semi-cohesive framework, with basic delineation of powers and non-violent dispute resolution mechanisms.

1. Political Space

As outlined in our earlier "Planning" report, the creation of political space is essential to allow a cohesive and representative system to emerge. Political space requires both a physical area as well as a social environment within which people can meet, negotiate and plan, free from the threat of force. The Bonn Agreement has left undefined many crucial elements of the process of establishing political institutions. Many sensitive issues, such as the means of selecting government representatives and ensuring ethnic and gender participation, will need to be hammered out through extensive negotiations and difficult compromise. If the needs of constituencies are not incorporated into this process, there will be a high likelihood that the resulting political institutions will fail.

2. National Institutions

Previous Models: There are no national institutions currently functioning in Afghanistan. Prior experience with national government has varied between two loose models. The first model is characterized by centralization, concentration of power into the hands of a narrow minority, and subjugation of opposition by force. This approach was most evident in the reign of Amir Abdul Rehman Khan (1880-1901), the Soviet-backed PDPA government (1979-1992), and the Taliban. The second model is characterized by efforts to modernize the state apparatus while co-opting autonomous local authorities through patronage. This model was most evident in the reign of Amanullah (1920-1929) and Zahir Shah (1933-1973). A third model began to emerge in the brief period of political liberalization following the enactment of the 1964 Constitution. This constitution, for the first time in Afghanistan's history, envisioned a system of direct popular selection of representatives with the power to legislate and an independent judiciary.


  • Distinguish National Functions: In striking a balance between these models there is a need to determine which institutions must have a national character, which local, and what the relationship between them should be. While military forces must have a national function to defend borders and ensure internal cohesion and integration, there may be an appropriate role for local control over basing, recruitment, and non-military policing functions. National institutions will also have a useful role in coordinating social services and economic management.
3. Regional Institutions

Decentralization: The turmoil of the last 23 years has created a strong degree of regional autonomy in Afghanistan. Ethnic groups that were relatively disenfranchised now have autonomous military, and to a lesser extent, political structures. These new political centers will have to be taken into account. Factional party structures at times have functioned as mini-state governments, carrying on foreign relations, issuing visas and even printing currency.

Military Forces: The most significant manifestation of this decentralizing trend is the military forces currently controlling the regions of the country. Similar to the period of civil war between 1992-1996, the country is essentially divided into 5-6 regions under the control of autonomous military forces. An uneasy peace now exists, with the heads of each region offering conditional support to the new Interim Administration. However, this state of affairs presently poses the greatest challenge to peace, and must be addressed.


  • Centralize and Regionalize Simultaneously: The challenge of the existing decentralized power structure is to avoid regional autonomy that prevents the development of national institutions. The challenge of centralization is to create national institutions that do not usurp all power and participation from the regions; or that cause those regions to seek alternative political arrangements through force or disintegration of the state. The key to an approach in Afghanistan is a dual and simultaneous process of centralization and regionalization, in order to engage in a harmonized way in the regions and at the center.

  • Build Confidence between Rivals: Military leaders must be brought together to re-build relations and to mutually reassure each other that use of force will not be an option for dispute resolution. A mechanism that acknowledges past transgressions without fear of prosecution may also be necessary to reduce tensions.
Integrate Security Arrangements: There must be immediate efforts made to create a non-political, integrated military force that can act as a growing buffer between rival factions and which can incorporate demobilized mujahideen.

4. Local Institutions

The core of Afghan society has always been located at the local level. The process of creating a national identity and government collapsed following the Soviet invasion and during the ensuing 23 years of conflict. As a result, the power to administer basic government functions again devolved to the local level. Although not democratic, these institutions are representative of the local population and, as such, they are a critical resource for political and physical reconstruction.

The Village Shura: Informal village-level bodies are the primary functioning structure of decision-making still remaining. The village shura (council, or jirga in Pashtu) is an ad hoc institution that allows broad representation and nominally consensual decision-making. The word 'shura', from the Arabic 'mashwara' (to discuss), is best translated from contemporary Dari as 'council or committee'. In some Islamic religious thought, the shura is considered the ideal model for governance, and many Islamic governments have used such nomenclature for a variety of institutions. Thus the shura, a concept as old as Islam itself, carries certain meanings and associations for most of Afghanistan's inhabitants.

National Connotations of the Shura: The shura also had national connotations in pre-war Afghanistan. The national assembly in Kabul was known as the Shura-i-Milli (national shura), and each province had a Shura-i-Woloyati (provincial shura). Also, before the coronation of a new king or in a national emergency, a Loya-Jirga (grand council) was called to endorse the selection or address the crisis. Therefore, in the past, the shura concept has held significant political currency in the forum of Afghan politics.

The Make-Up of the Shura: The shura has traditionally been an advisory council formed to solve conflicts, resolve disputes, or deliberate on decisions affecting the community. Such councils are comprised of those whose opinions, negotiating skills and knowledge of tribal and/or religious law are respected, usually including elders, religious authorities, and local influentials. The membership of the council varies according to the issue it is confronting. While the council itself may have no direct means of enforcement, its authority is respected, and those who do not comply with its decisions will find themselves at odds with the community. In Afghanistan, where family and tribal affiliations outweigh all others, non-cooperation or exclusion by the community, perhaps to the point of complete ostracism or banishment, is a harsh if not unbearable punishment.

How the Shura Functions: Any head of household can attend the shura and all parties attending the shura are allowed to speak. The process of reaching consensus is entirely dependent on the inherent understanding of the participants of the social hierarchy within the village. Unless the proper people are represented at the shura, a decision will not be made. And all voices in the shura are far from equal. But there is no definitive means by which to determine the line of authority in the hierarchy. No one is vested with ultimate decision-making power. But there are certain individuals that cannot be excluded.

Scope of the Shura: The shura can deal with problems or disputes that arise within the community and it may also deal with the division of labor or resources where communal issues are concerned. For instance many villages have a mirab-a person hired from within the community to distribute water via irrigation systems. This person serves as a village civil servant, paid from community resources and responsible for administering the systems and settling minor disputes. He is responsible to the shura.

Variations in the Shura: Although the concept of the shura is familiar to most Afghans, the local relevance of the institution is not equally strong in all areas of the country. In many areas, politics have traditionally been limited to a power elite and the general populace has not enjoyed a participatory role at local or provincial levels. At the village level, informal gatherings may have been called to deal with problems or conflicts arising in the community, but generally decisions were ultimately the domain of a few local elite. However, the past 23 years has transformed the politics of many previously disenfranchised areas, and these traditional limits on participation need to be reexamined.


  • Ensure Local Inputs to Shuras: The most successful projects have generally been those requiring substantial inputs (e.g. labor, locally available materials) from the village. Once inputs were demanded from the villages, people had a sense of ownership and became invested in the outcome of every small project.

  • Guarantee Informal Access to Authority: Local access to power and resources has not typically been through formal structures. Authority is established and maintained through patronage systems. Resources are often sought through petition (areza), wherein a person from a village will go directly to an official for resources or help with a problem. The patronage system is symbiotic due to the fact that the patron derives his/her authority from the act of hearing/granting requests. The patron's legitimacy would be undermined if he did not engage in this practice or were unable to fulfill these obligations. From the outside, such a system can appear exploitative and corrupt, and it certainly makes fairness of distribution difficult to enforce. However, it is important to note that if an expert/outsider is put in the position of the patron without accountability to the population (i.e. without the obligation to hear/grant petitions), this may disrupt an important means by which people can have access. Afghans need to locate themselves in their social context. People must be able to engage in face-to-face encounters and should not be denied this opportunity.
5. International Actors

Coalition and Security-Assistance Forces: International coalition forces continue to operate inside Afghanistan in the war against al-Qaeda and the Taliban. At the same time, an International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) has been deployed to provide a secure environment in Kabul and build confidence between the remaining factions in the country, many of which have not fully acquiesced to the Bonn Agreement.

Neighboring Powers: The factions in different regions of the country have been heavily influenced in the past 23 years by neighboring actors, with whom they have political, ethnic and/or religious ties. There needs to be a concerted effort to reduce interference in factional competition by outside actors. These actors have contributed to inequities through assistance in both military and economic matters. Such inputs will destabilize attempts at ensuring the balance that must emerge in reconstructing necessary institutions. Each of the neighboring countries are concerned about co-ethnic elements, refugees, terrorism and narcotics. All have some ethnic ties to groups in Afghanistan, but there is a relative lack of irredentist tendencies.

United Nations and the World Bank: Initially, a range of international/inter-governmental bodies will be the primary channel of financial support and expertise to Afghan institutions. An effort to harmonize inputs and approaches will be critical to ensuring rapid deployment of resources as well as minimizing the tendency to undermine agreements through competition and differing standards.

Bi-Lateral Arrangements: As political institutions take root, there will likely be aggressive efforts on the part of other states to cement ties to Afghanistan via bi-lateral, rather than multi-lateral, engagement. In this environment it will become more difficult to harmonize international inputs and policy. Afghanistan's governing institutions will gain leverage as a result - but will also be forced to serve additional masters.


  • "Afghanization" of Harmonization: Political and institutional stability requires that international inputs are harmonized under a system of Afghan control. Executive and legislative powers, as well as legal sovereignty, will be residing with the Afghan Authority, while the international community will have the status of "assisting" that Authority. The Bonn Agreement vests the UN Special Representative with full authority over UN agencies. The World Bank and bi-lateral development agencies will be operating separately, with coordination, but not unified control, though a reconstruction steering committee. There are already two trust funds, one under the World Bank and one under the UN, which will inevitably be much smaller. The ISAF and the coalition forces have very different missions, although operating under one ultimate chain of command, headquartered at US Central Command (Centcom) in Florida. There will need to be a national planning capability established within the Afghan Authority in Kabul that can relatively quickly make sense of the myriad of international actors in the country.
6. Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs)

Prior International Practice in Afghanistan: Humanitarian agencies on the ground have grown accustomed to working with relative freedom and autonomy. They now need to adapt. They will have to work with or be operationally integrated with UN Secretariat offices, including the Department of Political Affairs and the Department of Peacekeeping Operations, aid agencies and international military forces. The strategic framework and similar arrangements attempted previously have not managed to harmonize the political and humanitarian avenues. This is not a one-way process; as humanitarian agencies have been operating inside Afghanistan for a decade, there is much the political side can learn from them.

The Growth of NGOs: In the early 1990s, the UN made a decision to fund Afghan NGOs-leading to the creation of several hundred NGOs in a brief period. While some of these organizations have established excellent track records in the most trying of conditions, others existed in name and bank account only. In both cases, these NGOs were often required to cater to the desires of local commanders, who used the NGOs to build support within their patronage network. These practices often led to poor resource distribution and outright corruption. This symbiotic relationship tended to increase commanders' individual legitimacy and thus the factionalization itself. Many NGOs were not accountable, which resulted in subterfuge by some and widespread distrust by many.

National NGOs: There has been limited experience in Afghanistan with national NGOs. The Red Crescent has some history in the country, but was never fully independent of the government. Other former "national" NGOs included the Women's Institute and the Academy of Sciences. Would national NGOs be acceptable to a new administration? Would they be allowed to have resources outside the control of government? Political confidence is required to allow these organizations to function. Resource limitations are so severe at present that those in control of resources may present a political challenge to emerging authority.


  • Ensure Accountability from NGOs: The NGO "business" must be transformed. This mode of operation had its place in the factionalized emergency environment. The proliferation of NGOs, that is sure to intensify in coming months, will result in the arrival of new and inexperienced organizations that could lead to violent incidents and wasted resources. Their operations must not contradict either national or local strategies for political reconstruction by facilitating spoilers or inhibiting popular participation in the process. Registering NGOs is a first step; fostering a code of conduct for operations in Afghanistan can also help. There are dangers in actually requiring NGOs to be licensed for their activities, which can either unnecessarily limit good works or turn licensing into a new form of corruption for authorizing officers. There is a balance to be struck between the need for operational space for effectiveness and accountability to ensure legitimacy of action.

  • Build Capacity at Every Chance: In order to fulfill combined roles of building capacity and delivering services, there must be Afghan management and international monitoring of expenditure and competence. Afghans will play the role both of ensuring accountability of the humanitarian and development "enterprise", but will also participate in that "enterprise" to start a process of legitimate Afghanization of the assistance effort.

  • Fit NGOs into the Harmonization Strategy: Harmonization is more than mere coordination, which has tended to be no more than an exchange of information on activities. Without overly restricting a degree of positive independence and responsible initiative in the assistance effort, NGOs will now have to do things differently and participate in more of a common process rooted in a long-term vision for a stable government in Afghanistan.
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