Kabul has never ruled Afghanistan

Is a centralised presidential republic really the best form of government for Afghanistan, asks Carlo Ungaro, after 16 years in the country? More regional autonomy would allow respected local chiefs (as opposed to war lords) to exercise their authority

The inauguration of Afghanistan’s president Karzai, in a capital city turned into a deserted fortress for the occasion, has doubtlessly constituted one of the very lowest points in the painful history of the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan and its dreadful follow-up.

As I observed over my 16 years in the country, the Afghans are a patient people: it  took  almost ninety years for them to convince the British that any attempt permanently to occupy the country would be futile, and they also fought the Soviet invasion for almost a decade. NATO has been there, now, for eight years, and has yet to consolidate its presence, even in the capital city, Kabul, which, at times, such as the day of this infamous inauguration,  appears totally occupied and blockaded, with checkpoints every few hundred meters and military presence visible at every corner, but yet can be the theatre of frightful  attacks on foreign troops and – unfortunately – afghan and foreign civilians.

The invasion of Afghanistan was greeted with  approval and understanding by  almost all the world’s Governments as an apparently justified reaction to an act of terrorism ostensibly masterminded in Afghanistan itself, but  very lame and contradictory justification has been given on the maintaining of a massive military presence there after the expulsion of Al Qaida – the achievement of the initial “casus belli”.

Whether or not there were also covert reasons to encourage the United States and at least some of its NATO allies into extending the Afghan operation from a simple surgical strike against Al Qaida  into a “regime change” venture is open to conjecture, and constitutes one of those subjects seldom approached by international commentators. It would be a mistake to ignore the fact that a “western oriented” Afghanistan would be of extreme  usefulness to the major western powers  because of the greater ease of access to the energy reserves in Central Asia. With “friendly” governments in  the Central Asian republics, in Afghanistan and in Pakistan, oil could be pumped  through these countries to Karachi with fewer  political problems, avoiding “undependable” Iran. This solution was already the subject of speculation in the pre-Taliban days, and is probably still being considered by some of the interested parties.

There is the suggestion that NATO’s presence in Afghanistan   is an integral, if not a dominating  part of the  world’s struggle against terrorism, and there is no doubt that the Al Qaida headquarters, and some of its training facilities, were in Afghanistan at the time of the invasion. The question needs to be asked, however, if the current Taliban – and not only Taliban – insurgency in Afghanistan does actually pose an international security threat and is not, instead  a natural, typically Afghan, reaction to the presence of  foreign troops while the core of the Al Qaida inspired  terrorist activity seems to have spread elsewhere.

At this moment negotiations with the insurgents would be conducted from a position of relative weakness. The concept itself, however, has been evolving from being an absolutely unmentionable anathema to a seemingly realistic option. Some three years ago, instead, when I was in Herat, and was actually approached by people connected to Mullah Omar,  the Taliban were in a weaker position than now and it would perhaps  have been a more favorable moment openly to talk to them. When I reported these contacts I came upon a firm veto, which was based on two contradictory, but very obtuse and dogmatic  dictates: firstly that “we don’t negotiate with terrorists” and, in second place, “the Taliban are not interested in negotiations”. I am sure that I was not the only person approached, and a greater flexibility would perhaps have been a better idea.

Should the concept prevail that Western forces  have to remain in Afghanistan to bring stability, good governance and democracy, at least in some acceptable form, the question should be addressed as to whether the present Afghan Constitution really reflects the social and political needs of the country. There is  an important historical fact to consider, namely that in the course of its long and tortured history, Afghanistan has very seldom been successfully and  efficiently administered by a strong central Government in  the capital.

Is a centralized presidential republic  really the ideal system for that country or, indeed, could it ever be made to work no matter how much effort is put into the  attempt? This is an extremely complex  problem which should involve careful analysis and much consultation with a credible cross-section of  Afghan political and civil society. It is my  idea, however, that by creating a number of more autonomous regions it would be possible to enhance the differences, which already exist, in the approach to some of the  non-military problems (e.g. human rights, corruption, etc.) which seem to slip  further and further away at this particularly dramatic moment in the history of the NATO and International  operations in Afghanistan.

This, among other things would entail two very delicate issues, the necessary reformulating of the Afghan Constitution and the renewed involvement of at least some of the so-called “war lords”.

The Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan has been  prepared with great care and approved by the  Afghan Parliament. It  does not, however, fully take into account the Country’s peculiarities, nor does it seem  founded on the basis of local and tribal traditions. A radical change in the Constitution need not be a traumatic event, as long as all sides  are allowed to participate, and as long as preconceived ideas are abandoned.

As far as the “war-lords” are concerned, it is important to distinguish between those who have emerged  from the  violent civil war years and are little more than glorified gangsters, and those, instead, who obviously wield an authority greater than  what can be imposed by fear of retribution, but which is based , instead, on family and tribal realities. Serious attempts could be undertaken to involve some of these local chiefs – rather than the  Kabul nominated provincial Governors.

About the author

Carlo Ungaro is a former Italian diplomat. He spent sixteen years serving in Afghanistan.  Between 2000 and 2007, he served as political adviser to the Italian led ISAF forces in Herat