Farhad Sultani
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In countries like Afghanistan, where there are important ethnic, cultural and linguistic divergencies, a unitary system of government is always a great source of hostility and bitterness on the part of minority groups. Consequently, if a federal system of government would be introduced in which all minorities would be recognized and accorded local autonomy, then ethnic conflicts, socio-economic strains, and security issues could be reduced. Furthermore, federalism in post-conflict societies is not only helpful for peace and stability. It can also improve governance by making public service delivery more efficient, effective and just.

There exists a considerable body of literature suggesting that federalism is an appropriate option for developing countries. A considerable number has have indeed adopted it. For instance, during the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, many Latin American countries, including Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, and Venezuela, moved from a centralized government towards a federal system (Prasad Singh, 2022). After World War II, there was a proliferation of federalist experiments in Western and Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean. One can think of countries like Burma (1948) (Myanmar since 1989), Indonesia (1949), India (1950), Pakistan (1956), Malaya (1948 and 1957), Malaysia (1957, 1963), United Arab Emirates (1971), Libya (1951), Ethiopia (1952), Rhodesia and Nyasaland (1953), Nigeria (1954), Mali (1959), the Congo (1960), Cameroon (1961), Comoros (1978), West Indies (1958), Austria (1945), Yugoslavia (1946), Germany (1949), Czechoslovakia (1970), Spain (1978), Belgium (1993) and South Africa (1996) (Watts 1999, 2–3). Ostwald (2017) points out that 40 percent of the world’s population presently lives in federal or quasi-federal countries. Federalism is among the fastest-expanding governance models in the world today.

Many countries that have adopted federalism have experienced dramatic economic and political progress (Inman & Rubinfeld, 1997). The primary purposes of federalism are power decentralization, implementation of good governance in the local community, and prevention of ethnic conflicts. Additionally, federalism can provide efficient governmental services to local communities in excessively large countries such as Sudan, Ethiopia, and Nigeria (Kimenyi 1998).

Since 2001 Afghanistan has received a considerable amount of international aid to establish a democratic government and to restore security, boost socio-economic progress, enhance political development, deliver good governance, and end long-lasting conflicts. For many Afghans the events of 9/11 were a turning point. People expected that things would change. However, the U.S. and its allies supported a highly centralized administration. The model of the unitary state is not viable for Afghanistan, though. Centralization has hindered to build up a functioning state and has not ended ethnic conflicts. The highly centralized administration has only caused political unrest, insecurity, violence, poverty, and tribal conflict. The application of a federal system of government could help to restore people’s confidence and trust in government, particularly at the grassroots.

Pro and Con federalism

According to Volden (2004), federalism “refers to a political setup in which the functions of government are divided between regional governments and a central government in such a way that each kind of government has some activities on which it makes final decisions”. Kymlicka (2005) states that federalism offers the best means to deal with national diversity and resolve conflicts. Classical arguments for federalism reflect that decentralized power ensures national unity, promotes security, protects citizens against encroachment by the state, limits ethnic clashes, and safeguards individual and communal liberty (Wibbels 2006; Erk & Anderson 2009: Bednar 2011). The application of federalism to pluralist and divided societies provides inter-group solidarity by allowing for a re-adjustment of political divisions on various national levels and regional administrations. Therefore, it contributes to a greater sense of justice in both a normative and practical sense (Weinstock, 2002; Requejo, 2005). Federalism, Elazar (1987) writes as well, can play a role in conflict management and conflict prevention in a country that has different religious and cultural ethnicities so as to ensure that the rights and interests of all communities are protected. Federalism can be seen as a system that unites people with different beliefs into one state and combines the benefits of unity and diversity, or at least searches for equilibrium between these two poles (Watts 1998; Abdulmalik & Shittu Isyaku  2022).

The 2004 Afghan Constitution states that Afghanistan’s government has to delegate powers to local authorities to promote good governance and political stability. Furthermore, the government, in preserving the principles of centralism, is supposed to transfer powers to local administrations to accelerate economic, social, and cultural development, as well as to foster people’s political participation. However, Afghanistan’s former presidents Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani were not enthusiastic about transferring decisionmaking powers to sub-national agencies. They made all staff appointments at the lower and middle levels, and the provincial governors were only supposed to carry out the policies of the central state. Fiscally, Afghanistan was also highly centralized. No fiscal transfers went to sub-national levels. Budgets of provincial governments were planned in Kabul, and Kabul’s approval was required for even minor shifts and changes. Districts in Afghanistan also had no independent authority to impose taxes. The only financial autonomy existed at the municipal level. All tax rates were planned in Kabul, but municipalities’ revenues were spent there.

There are two opposing arguments concerning federalism in the context of Afghanistan. The  opponents of federalism claim that a highly centralized government is required for nation-building and is essential to meld Afghanistan into a unified nation. Currently, the governmental apparatus is fragile and susceptible to disintegration. Armed groups of rebels have control of several parts of the country. Hence, Afghanistan needs a strong, centralized government to enhance political stability, socio-economic progress, and public service delivery. Furthermore, advocates of a centralized set-up argue that federalism can cause the balkanization of the country, linguistic and cultural fragmentation, and a weakening of Afghans’ faith in unity. Federalism would create new sub-national identities and border conflicts between ethnic minorities. Thus, it poses a threat to the country’s unity and would hamper re-unification.

The proponents of federalism want to shift power, responsibilities, and authority to local, autonomous bodies following cultural, ethnic, and geographical lines. They see five main reasons why federalism is a suitable model of government for Afghanistan.

First, the size of the country. The geography makes travel and communication difficult, time-consuming, and costly. Consequently, a centralized administration lacks the information on local needs and local problems. Only federal governments are able to determine whether a rural village is in need of a new bridge or an irrigation system. Local resources for socio-economic and political development are also easier to mobilize if such projects are decided and carried out by a federal authority. With a total area of 652,860 square km, Afghanistan cannot effectively and efficiently be administrated through a single leviathan from top to bottom. This arrangement can only breed neglect, frustration, and aggression. Due to lack of information and overburdening of the central authority the delivered services can only be poor.

Second, the pluralist nature of Afghanistan: Afghanistan is a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-lingual society with over 40 ethnic groups and tribes. There are four major ethnic groups: Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbek, and Hazara, as well as other smaller ethnic minorities who speak diverse languages and dialects. Only federalism can deal with this pluralism.

Third, federalism would bring political stability. Generally speaking, it can prevent conflicts, resolve old disputes, respect the rights of minorities, and promote unity by forcing the government to be closer with the people. Federalism could prevent the reproduction of tyranny and dictatorship, could eliminate injustice, ensure a fairer distribution of power and wealth, and strengthen political legitimacy. Federalism is the best way to maintain the spirit of national unity and integrity in the long run. It creates a sense of belonging among people. It can make people view Afghanistan as their home and trust the local authorities to ensure real political participation and to protect their legitimate rights. In addition, federalism would benefit all Afghans and would not be limited to a particular region, ethnicity, or nationality.

Fourth, federalism would further socio-economic progress. A federal system of government would decentralize power. It would allocate public resources more efficiently and effectively which would further progress.

Fifth, federalism would help to form an inclusive government. In fact, historically, Afghanistan has never had a sovereign state with an authoritative, legitimate final decisionmaking power controlling all parts of the country. In that sense, federalism would not give up something. It would make something that has been there all the time, finally work.

*Farhad Sultani is an Afghan political scholar, who fled to Germany after the Taliban seized power in 2021. He studied in India (Mangalore University for his PhD and Panjab University for his MA), specializing in public administration.

*Thanks to Genevieve Soucek, Yasmine Benyoussef and Hans Blokland for editing the article.


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2 Replies to “Does Federalism Work for Afghanistan?”

  1. Jamal Nasir Kohistani says:

    The historical trajectory of Afghanistan reveals its geopolitical significance as a buffer state, vulnerable to occupation by global powers. The interference of influential nations, particularly British India and Russia, has perpetuated a fragmented political landscape, hindering the establishment of a cohesive national identity and sovereignty. Examining the governance dynamics, it becomes apparent that the selection of leaders in Afghanistan was not based on the legitimacy of political authority, but rather on birthright, leading to the ascension of individuals lacking political acumen and a commitment to national interests.
    The manipulation of power in Afghanistan’s governance structure aimed to serve external interests, enabling colonial policies by perpetuating weak leadership from the royal family. The ruling elite, often characterized by a lack of wisdom and ethical conduct, resorted to extreme measures, including intra-familial violence, to secure and maintain their positions. Consequently, this approach fostered centralized and autocratic governments, bereft of social justice, national authority, and unity.
    The dearth of political wisdom among rulers exacerbated internal issues, relegating justice, patriotism, and philanthropy to the periphery. Autocratic administrations, especially those dominated by the Pashtun ethnic group, marginalized non-Pashtun communities, employing repressive measures such as violence, torture, rape, mass murder, and property confiscation to suppress dissent. This marked the establishment of a governance culture characterized by authoritarianism and ethnic injustice.
    Centralized autocracy emerged as an effective tool in supporting colonial policies, perpetuating ethnic dominance and tyranny in Afghanistan. The three-century-long imposition of a single-ethnic rule entrenched it as a cultural norm, rendering it challenging to dismantle. Overcoming this entrenched norm necessitates a collective effort by the Afghan populace to foster social justice, transcending ethnic considerations.
    Addressing the issue of ethnic justice in Afghanistan requires a departure from entrenched ethnic interests. The imperative to establish a decentralized system, particularly for non-Pashtun ethnic groups, lies at the heart of their struggle for political rights over the past three centuries. Embracing federalism, a contemporary and successful decentralized system adopted by many nations, holds the key to resolving internal conflicts, consolidating security, and ensuring enduring stability in Afghanistan.
    In conclusion, the historical context of Afghanistan underscores the need for a governance paradigm shift. Federalism emerges as a viable solution, offering a decentralized framework that accommodates the diverse ethnic fabric of the nation. By embracing federalism, Afghanistan has the potential to address historical grievances, foster ethnic justice, and build a foundation for lasting stability and prosperity.
    Thank you,
    Jamal Nasir Kohistani
    Research Scholar at the Department of Political Science, University of Kerala, India.

    1. Farhad Sultani says:

      Dear Kohistani,
      My apologies for the late reply. I personally appreciate your historical assessment about the crisis in Afghanistan. As always, the hard engrained Islamic faith and Pashtunwali code of honour continue to fuel Taliban movement and others extremist groups in Afghanistan. Despite that Afghanistan is one of the most resource-rich countries in the world, however, it’s people stuck in a acute poverty trap. In short, I am of the option that the application of federal system could help Afghanistan to overcome its problematic situation.


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