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Building Legitimacy in Post-Taliban Afghanistan

January 14, 2009

One of the principal objectives of political transition in Afghanistan since the overthrow of the Taliban regime in 2001 has been the development of a legitimate government. In some notable respects Afghanistan has done much better than many might have hoped. The drafting of a new constitution and the holding of presidential and parliamentary elections were remarkable achievements for a country which had plumbed the depths of isolation during the period of Taliban rule.

Yet, Afghanistan seems more beset by problems now than at any time since the overthrow of the Taliban. Insecurity dogs the lives of many ordinary people. If all were well, it would take no more than ninety minutes to drive from Kabul to Ghazni along the Kabul-Kandahar highway that was re-sealed by the United States as a showcase project. Instead, it takes over three days; the road is now so dangerous that aid workers must travel to Bamiyan in the Hazarajat and make their way to Ghazni from there. It is clear that neither on its own, nor in partnership with its international supporters, is the Afghan government presently capable of guaranteeing the safety and security of ordinary Afghans. It certainly does not enjoy a monopoly on the means of legitimate coercion, of a kind that the great German social theorist Max Weber saw as central to the distinctive identity claims of the state.

Where, therefore, does Afghanistan stand as far as the reconstitution of legitimate government is concerned? Has it moved forward or is it sliding backwards? And what are the prospects for the foreseeable future? Answering these questions involves not just a reflection on the bases for the legitimation of power in the Afghan context, but also an appraisal of the attitudes of ordinary Afghans, both at present and over time. The data gathered by The Asia Foundation constitute one of the most important ‘windows’ onto Afghan opinion that researchers can presently use.

The Concept of Legitimacy

The concept of legitimacy is of central importance in the analysis of the modern state. Legitimacy in the sense in which I use the term means generalised, normative support ” ‘generalised’ in the sense that it goes beyond mere support for particular stances on particular issues, and ‘normative’ in that it is not based simply on calculations of interest. It implies a relationship between rulers and ruled that is substantially grounded in the idea of consent rather than coercion. This insight was articulated by thinkers as diverse as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Edmund Burke. In 1762 in The Social Contract, Rousseau wrote that the “strongest is never strong enough to be always master, unless he transforms strength into right, and obedience into duty.”  Similarly, Burke, in his 1775 Speech, Moving Resolutions for Conciliation with the Colonies, argued that “the use of force alone is but temporary. It may subdue for a moment; but it does not remove the necessity of subduing again: and a nation is not governed, which is perpetually to be conquered.”

Afghanistan’s historical experiences in the sphere of political legitimation have been decidedly mixed. In the 19th century, Amir Abdul Rahman Khan relied substantially on non-legitimate forms of domination of a particularly ferocious kind. Although he also sought to establish his moral standing by distributing proclamations which recounted the content of dreams that were clearly depicted as near-revelations – a somewhat daring approach, but one he clearly thought likely to be effective in a society marked by high levels of superstition. The effort of King Amanullah in the 1920s to shift to a constitutional order unraveled dramatically in 1929, when the king was overthrown in an uprising fueled by hostility to his policies on the part of social elites, and claims that what he was attempting was un-Islamic. This led to a period of almost three decades in which such approaches lay fallow, with the agencies of the state largely avoiding direct confrontation with important societal groups. In the mid-to-late 1950s, Prime Minister Mohammad Daoud sought to boost his standing by presenting himself as a forceful moderniser, something he reinforced by the evocation of nationalist sentiment in the context of the Pashtunistan dispute. This dispute saw Afghanistan and the new state of Pakistan at odds over the position of the Pashtun ethnic group, which had been formally separated by the drawing of a boundary between Afghanistan and British India in 1893, setting the scene for the irredentist claims that emerged from Kabul. However, in pursuing these objectives, Daoud made many enemies, and this contributed to his replacement at the hands of his cousin King Zahir in 1963. The 1964 Constitution returned constitutionalist ideas to centre-stage, but the 1973 coup by Daoud highlighted the fragility of this era of so-called ‘New Democracy.’ Even so, by sanctioning the coup as a mechanism of regime change it ironically set the scene for Daoud’s own overthrow in the communist coup of April 1978.

These early episodes in their own ways highlighted the fact that political legitimacy can have quite diverse bases. This concept was elaborated by Max Weber whose analysis of ‘legitimate rule’ pointed to tradition, charisma, and legal-rational procedure as potential sources of legitimate authority. These different bases of legitimacy all deserve some elaboration. The idea of traditional legitimacy has significant value in explaining the existence of political authority in social units in which institutions are informal, or in which social learning substantially accounts for the loyalty which power holders may receive. It is tempting to follow Weber in seeing existence since time immemorial as a key constituent of traditional legitimacy. However, more recent work on tradition has emphasised its malleability, and in some cases even its ‘invented’ quality, with rituals being deliberately constructed to bolster the authority of those in a position of dominance. Monarchies, such as Afghanistan had from 1747 to 1973, are often seen as quintessential repositories of ‘traditional’ legitimacy, but the fall of many monarchies during the 20th century also points to the importance of other, non-traditional, bases.

Read more of “Building Legitimacy in Post-Taliban Afghanistan” in State Building, Security, and Social Change in Afghanistan: Reflections on a Survey of the Afghan People.

William Maley is Professor and Director of the Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy at the Australian National University. A regular visitor to Afghanistan, he is author of Rescuing Afghanistan (London: Hurst & Co., 2006), and The Afghanistan Wars (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002, 2009). Below is an excerpt from his chapter, “Building Legitimacy in Post-Taliban Afghanistan” in a recently-published volume, “State Building, Security, and Social Change in Afghanistan: Reflections on a Survey of the Afghan People.”

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