The South Asia Channel

The fine line between culture and law in Afghanistan

Countries that have experienced decades of conflict and political turmoil, and have historically featured persistent executive-judicial disputes tend to have less judicial autonomy. Afghanistan epitomizes this. The country has not only lacked comprehensive, integrated laws for much of its history, but what laws existed were culturally dictated and enforced, and in most cases, still are. ...


Countries that have experienced decades of conflict and political turmoil, and have historically featured persistent executive-judicial disputes tend to have less judicial autonomy. Afghanistan epitomizes this. The country has not only lacked comprehensive, integrated laws for much of its history, but what laws existed were culturally dictated and enforced, and in most cases, still are.

As an Afghan, articles about the emergence of the rule of law in the West make me think about the intersection of culture and law in Afghanistan and its challenges. Even before its formal establishment as a nation, the United States began to create common law by using centuries-old written precedents from Great Britain, and applying American notions of reason and justice. Since there is little written tradition in Afghanistan, it does not have such a heritage, nor common law texts, as a starting point. Its starting point is a religious text, the Quran, written in Arabic, a language understood by only a small number of Afghans, the oral history of past decisions, and "felt necessities of the time," as Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. characterized one aspect of the development of the common law in the United States.

The Afghan idea of a justice system is also defined by Pashtunwali, a social code of conduct and way of life that predates the Anglo-Saxon common law.  Pashtunwali defines the fundamentals of the Afghan culture, identity and, above all, personal honor.  What distinguishes the practice of Pashtunwali is its emphasis on using influential local and tribal leaders (Maliks, Khans and mullahs), or respected outsiders chosen arbitrarily by the conflicting parties, to act as fact-finders and decision-makers.  Furthermore, decisions must be seen as arbitrary and impartial, not compelled by any of the players in the conflict. This is one of the key reasons people in rural Afghanistan have historically opted to use customary shuras (councils) and jirgas (assemblies) as the primary decision-making forums in which to resolve their disputes. Over the course of Afghan history, the ideals of Pashtunwali have driven and influenced local decisions and rulings, primarily in rural Afghanistan, though the ethos of the system may be seen in all Pashtuns. The few attempts by the central legal authorities to supplant this indigenous centuries-long system of beliefs have been, and may continue to be, largely unsuccessful.

Laws in the United States made by federal, state and local representatives are designed to supersede and override the common law, while in the absence of a statute (or the Constitution), the common law prevails. Although broad policy objectives are not well mapped by use of the common law, it is a filler of necessity and provides an indispensable resource for judicial decisions in the absence of legislative guidance. By contrast, Afghans are usually handed oral, extemporized rulings influenced heavily by village elders, local and tribal leaders, Khans and mullahs, through the long-practiced shura and jirga system. Shuras and jirgas are said to be more efficient, accessible, cost-effective, less corrupt and more trusted by the Afghans than the formal state justice institutions. But these rulings often occur without reference to – mostly because of a lack of knowledge of, indifference to or defiance of – the Afghan Constitution, statutory laws or any other written records. Instead, these leaders rely on their understanding of the Quran, oral histories of past decisions known to them and to their people, Pashtunwali, and their "felt necessity."  

Thus, there is no cohesive thread connecting these oral decisions across villages and tribes to any common national public policy objectives. Afghans who have experienced both the formal and non-formal justice systems find the latter more in line and in compliance with local norms, customs and traditions, including the promotion and encouragement of consensus and avoiding a culture of impunity. Ignorance of and disregard for the country’s written law , as well as prevalent corruption, mean that people have little confidence in the laws and low expectations of justice brought through the formal court system.  A report released last year by the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) notes that in 2009 alone, Afghans paid an estimated $2.5 billion in bribes, equivalent to 23 percent of Afghanistan’s GDP, and that judicial officials topped the list of those who received the bribes. By contrast, judges in the United States use a more consistent process and look to the written precedents in common and statutory law, as well as publications of scholars and retired judges when they do not have written precedents in their own jurisdiction to guide them.  This reduces the incidence of corruption, since wide departures from these precedents would bring critical attention to anomalous decisions.

So what happens in Afghanistan? The disparate sense of "felt necessity," guided by various interpretations of a religious text many cannot read and many misunderstand – together with flawed oral histories of past judgments – drive local decisions, creating a confusing and conflicting hodgepodge of rulings devoid of broad public policy considerations. A key point to note here is that a lack of nationally accepted laws permits subversive elements such as the Taliban and leaders who may be unaware of the formal justice system or distrust government institutions, to intuit and then adopt the most draconian of these incongruent decisions. These actors then form "public policy" based on their interpretations, and enforce it in the areas that they control with attribution to the Quran and use of brutal penalties for non-compliance. 

The solution, it seems, would be for Afghan scholars and those with legal education and background in Afghanistan to go to village and tribal leaders across the country and record the background and results of recent their rulings and judgments. These scholars could then tease out common public policy threads from dispute resolutions that were build on factors ranging from the teachings of the Prophet Mohammad to local conditions and "felt necessities." Having distilled the core essence of such decisions, a "Restatement of the Law of Afghanistan" could be written, similar to the one that exists in the United States, which would set out the main principles of a developing Afghan common law.  It would have no legal power, but it would provide a starting point of the type the founding fathers of the United States received from Great Britain.  Through this mechanism, the future decisions of village and tribal leaders in Afghanistan would be guided but not bound by the past. They would at last be put into writing, further developing coherent and better reasoned guides for Afghanistan’s judicial system and a foundation against which ill-conceived and corrupt decisions can be measured and criticized.

It would be these written decisions of village and tribal leaders that would begin the long process of codifying the actual common law of Afghanistan, providing a place to look back for precedent and forward for the common threads of a rule of law.

There are no effective alternative power centers in Afghanistan that could create incentives for the people to take their disputes and disagreements to courts. Indeed, there are only a few courts now in existence and most are distrusted and discredited. However, codifying the actual common law of Afghanistan and applying it in the formal court system could create an incentive for the Afghan people to more formally and habitually refer their disputes and problems to the justice system.

Javid Ahmad, a native of Kabul, is Program Coordinator with the Asia Program of the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Washington DC.

Javid Ahmad, a South Asia analyst, is a graduate student at Jackson Institute for Global Affairs at Yale University. You can follow him on Twitter: @ahmadjavid. @ahmadjavid

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