Insights and Analysis

Paper Examines Afghans’ Views on Governance

May 23, 2012

On the heels of the Chicago NATO summit which set the stage for the departure of NATO troops from Afghanistan and the transition of security to Afghan forces, questions now turn to the future of  institution building, development, and the nation’s ability to provide security to its citizens post-2014. However, governance in Afghanistan remains a major obstacle to progress toward stability, argues senior fellow and director of the Program on Crisis, Conflict, and Cooperation at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, Robert Lamb, in a new paper, “Formal and Informal Governance in Afghanistan.” The paper is the first of series of analytical occasional papers on The Asia Foundation’s public-opinion survey, “Afghanistan in 2011: A Survey of the Afghan People.” Below is an excerpt.

Afghans seem to want their government to be strong and capable, accessible and accountable, modern and democratic. But perhaps Afghans do not compare how Afghanistan is today with how much better it could be, as most internationals seem to: that comparison would surely suggest Afghan governance falls far short of the ideal. Perhaps, instead, Afghans compare how Afghanistan is today with how much worse it could be, possibly with how much worse it has been in recent memory. …

The vision for governance laid out in Afghanistan’s constitution, its national development strategy, and the communiqués of international donor conferences is a vision of good governance and modern democracy – a vision that most Afghans strongly support, at least in principle. But the “rule of law” and the “rule of man” still operate side by side in Afghanistan today, and most Afghans seem to recognize that it will take many years for the latter to give way to the former. Meanwhile, they have lives to live, jobs to create, roads to build, children to educate, problems to solve, injuries to treat, conflicts to resolve, and decisions to make. No community that wants to preserve – or establish – a modicum of peace and stability can afford to wait around for a government (or foreign donors) to catch up to their needs for rules, decisions, institutions, services, and so on; instead they will use whatever governance options are available to them, whether from formal, informal, or even illicit sources. The result, inevitably, is going to be a hybrid system, and Afghans themselves will argue over its form, its rate of formalization, and its fairness, for many decades to come.

The withdrawal of ISAF troops and the transition to Afghan lead over the next few years will be accompanied by a heightened sense of uncertainty and potential for civil war. The top priority for the international community should be to keep the current hybrid system from falling apart so that those arguments can take place without resort to violence. That objective might best be served by helping to give as many Afghans including power brokers and insurgents – a stake in the system as possible. Doing so, however, would require that foreign donors make some uncomfortable compromises to their own visions for Afghanistan’s governance, and take Afghans’ views – contradictory and nuanced as they are – much more seriously.

Download full paper.

Related locations: Afghanistan
Related programs: Conflict and Fragile Conditions, Strengthen Governance


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