The international media is giving due attention to the forthcoming Afghan Presidential elections. On August 20 Afghani citizens will go to the polls in approximately 6,000 polling booths across the country to choose among 41 candidates for the Presidency.
There were meant to be 7,000 polling booths but insecurity fuelled by Taliban inspired violence has plagued these elections (see BBC video here).
Excuse me if I am slightly cynical about the elections. It is not that I doubt the intent and the impartiality of the polls.
But what exactly will the new President govern? The country has no bureaucratic infrastructure to implement any policies. The state apparatus has no revenue of its own and is almost entirely dependent on foreign sources to meet even basic operating costs.
Security is primarily provided by foreign troops. It is said that the Taliban now operate a parallel judiciary in Kandahar, Afghanistan's second largest city. If a road needs is being built then the work crew requires NATO protection, foreign aid money paid to foreign contractors. Nevertheless, it is the local Afghanis being paid subsistence wages who must brave the Taliban threats to actually build the road – when they are not being kidnapped or killed.
The poor have no choice but to scratch out a living. Joining the Taliban or becoming opium farmers suddenly seems attractive.
What are some options that are available to improve the complex situation in the battle scarred nation?
Afghanistan has never been a unitary state. It has been a confederation comprising the various tribes and ethnic groups that inhabit the region. The Pashtuns (aka Pathans or Pakhtuns), which straddle both sides of the Pak-Afghan border, are the largest single group.
The Taliban is mainly a Pashtun movement. Since the Taliban regime was ousted in late 2001, the Northern Alliance movement, in alliance with the US, has effectively been in control of Kabul. The control has come largely at the expense of the Pashtuns. The Pashtuns form 42% of the Afghan population and the Tajiks 27%.
The international community must recognize the tribal nature of traditional Afghan society. It is the tribal structure that holds the key to minimizing Taliban violence and influence. It is a local form of democracy somewhat comparable to the Swiss cantonal approach.
The Pashtun tribes and their leaders must be supported politically through direct access to funds and development assistance.
The tribal leaders are responsive to their own constituencies – members of their tribes. They have a vested interest in seeing roads, schools and markets built in their hamlets and villages. More importantly, if the tribes are consulted and included in the development process they will take ownership of the infrastructure, i.e. they will physically defend the improvements to their neighbourhood.
Central military force is important in the context of providing a security umbrella to the friendly and 'borderline' tribes. Military force effectively used will make the cost of joining the Taliban prohibitive. Becoming a Taliban fighter should not be seen as an easy way to earn a living by disaffected Pashtuns. Potential fighters must think twice and consider the price (death) before joining.
But the primary weapon is to negotiate, using a combination of threats and bribes, the nominal loyalty of tribes away from the Taliban.
There will always be an element of the Taliban who will not give up arms until either the foreigners have left or their austere version of Islamic law has been implemented. The impact of the extreme element on the mainstream can be minimized through social marginalization.
A second necessary condition is the inclusion of the Pashtuns in the Kabul political establishment. Since the fall of the Taliban an attempt has been made to placate Pashtun sensitivities by pointing to current President Hamid Karzai as their representative.
Karzai has no tribal constituency. He spent the Soviet occupation years in exile in Quetta, Pakistan. His impotence as a political deal maker became clear to the Pashtuns when the first post Taliban cabinet appointed Northern Alliance leaders in every key ministerial post.
The Pashtuns were marginalized and the effect was to strengthen their sympathies towards the Taliban.
NATO / US pressure on the Kabul elite to bring in key Pashtun leaders with important tribal constituencies into the regime will go a long way in reducing the pull of the Taliban. There are several members of the Taliban who are (or already have) renounced violence and joined the political mainstream. Some are even running for President in these elections.
Afghanistan is not a nation state in the same mould as European or Latin American nations. Even in the best of times, Afghanistan has been a loose confederation with some control exercised by political authorities in Kabul over the larger urban areas and road infrastructure. The loyalty and pacification of tribes through judicious use of cash and intimidation is what appears to have worked in the past.
To try and impose a 'top-down' unitary state is failure writ large. Instead, a return to the loose tribal based arrangement of the past is the best bet to restore stability to a nation destroyed by 30 years of fighting.
But for now, the Presidential elections give the international community a productive reason to spend their generous budgets and NATO troops some ballot boxes to protect.Imran Ahmed is a Singaporean freelance writer. He writes frequently on subjects of relevance to Muslims in modern society. He writes on his blog, The Grand Moofti Speaks. This article first appeared on his blog on August 18, 2009.