Michael Semple, Senior Fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, Harvard Kennedy School
In June 2012,a maverick former Member of the Afghan Parliament appeared on television in Kabul and declared that, while attending an opposition rally, he had apprehended that the movement’s advocacy of decentralised democracy amounted to a campaign to break up Afghanistan’s unitary state. The opposition dismissed the criticism as groundless and revealed evidence that the national intelligence service had orchestrated the MP’s claims.
The clash was just a minor episode in the complex controversy over how to decentralise Afghanistan. It illustrates three characteristic features of the decentralisation controversy:
Firstly the issues around decentralisation are highly topical.
Secondly there is a tradition of manipulation and misrepresentation in the debate.
Thirdly the debate is highly polarised.
The reason for the acrimony in the decentralisation debate is that it tends to proxy for other contentious issues. In conventional political rhetoric, Afghan Pashtun leaders equate the preservation of strong central government with the protection of their leading role in the state. Therefore proposals for democratisation and decentralisation,which would be inoffensive in other contexts, can, in the polarised Afghan debate, be construed as challenging the fundamental rationale of the state.
Traditional controversy aside, the latest focus on decentralisation in Afghanistan arises from the challenges of the transition process. The underlying issue is what changes to the structure of government might give Afghanistan the best chance of coping with the withdrawal of NATO forces. Decentralisation has emerged as one of the possible governance solutions on the basis that re-balancing power between centre and periphery might help overcome alienation of groups that have hitherto opted out of the political system and provide for broader-based participation.
This paper considers the prospects for decentralisation tocontribute to a more viable political system in Afghanistan.
Michael Semple is an Afghanistan and Pakistan expert, currently teaching at Queens University Belfast. He was former deputy to the European Union Special Representative to Afghanistan, and is a former fellow of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.