Afghanistan Needs a Weaker President

Decentralizing power can be key to long-term peace.

By Shabnam Nasimi, a British Afghan political and social activist and the executive director of Conservative Friends of Afghanistan, and Jason Criss Howk, a researcher who works with the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces.
Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani inspect a guard of honor.
Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan (center right) and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani (center) inspect a guard of honor ahead of their joint press conference at the Presidential Palace in Kabul, on Nov. 19, 2020. Wakil Kohsar/AFP via Getty Images

As the Afghan and U.S. governments negotiate peace with the Taliban, Afghanistan is wrestling with an old issue; how much power should be in the hands of the national government versus provincial and city leaders? This is not a uniquely Afghan question, but it’s a particularly acute one in a country that has disintegrated into violence many times in recent decades. There are no easy answers to adjustments like this, but a civil conversation should take place among Afghan citizens, politicians, and officials about how best to share powers to ensure peace and security for Afghans.

Afghanistan is among the most highly centralized states in the world with an extremely strong presidency that has left little room for formal local structures to fill the vacuum. Yet, the center’s power, given the country’s remote provinces and poor infrastructure and institutions, has also been insufficient to control the country. Decentralization of current presidential powers should not be about breaking the country apart or causing partition. Instead, it should be a quest for practical solutions to endless violence. Putting too much power in one person’s hands can lead to injustices and inequalities in even the most stable nations. Decentralization, on the other hand, could produce more support for the national government and greater trust in provincial and local systems, allowing the Afghan people to take control of their own political destiny.

Since 1973, the Afghan state has been a kingdom, a republic, a people’s democratic republic, again a republic, an Islamic state, an Islamic emirate, an interim administration, a transitional Islamic state, and an Islamic republic, averaging a change of regime more frequently than once every six years. Nothing seems to have brought peace and stability—but all of these systems have shared an obsession with centralizing national power. Maybe it’s time to try something new.

The dilemma for both Afghanistan and for the international community is to transform the current situation into a more equitable merit-based system of administration that can best ensure no ethnic group will be able to dominate. The Soviet Union in the 1980s and the United States after the 2001 Afghan Bonn Conference both assumed that building a strong state would counter Islamist extremism and a robust central authority could take control of the country. This approach ended up making the situation worse because it ignored the importance of Afghanistan’s ethnonational sensitivities.

At present, the varied ethnic and tribal groups inside Afghanistan often see the country’s leaders as fundamentally alien. Even the smallest decisions by the government in the current system can lead to claims of abuse of power at the expense of individual groups.

The proponents of the unitary state worry the country’s unity and integrity could be at risk if any power was pushed down to the people. They argue the nation is too fragmented, state institutions are weak, and insecurity problems demand a strong, centralized government.

But the centralized system has already failed to deliver the services nearly 40 million people need. Maybe giving more power to citizens and more responsibility to local leaders can improve that—and at a minimum, it can make them more accountable to their constituents.

The 2004 Afghan Constitution invests the president with more powers than former Afghan kings had. Among them is the power to appoint all government officials, political and professional, from the cabinet to district levels. That includes provincial governors, some of the most powerful people in the country.

This extreme power opens any president up to charges of nepotism and ethnic favoritism. Democracy suffers when parties out of power feel only the president’s friends are getting rewarded and makes it easier for anti-government forces to charge the government with corruption.

Placing the responsibility of policing cities more firmly in the hands of the mayors is another way Afghans can decentralize responsibly. Right now, the ministry of interior affairs has an outsized responsibility to maintain security in areas it can hardly be expected to understand fully. No single person can control the kidnappings, petty crime, car thefts, and murders from a distant seat in Kabul. Handing more responsibility to city mayors across the country could improve security and accountability.

Although there is a provision in the Afghan Constitution requiring mayors to be elected, it has never been put into practice. Appointments to these posts are filled by Afghanistan’s interior ministry, subject to presidential approval. A mayor is currently only accountable to the president, and this can generate corruption and allow officials to be selected through personal connections and bribery rather than merit. Beyond security, the municipalities have very limited authority. They have no control over electricity, water, and the police. If mayors are elected by the people, they would be more accountable to the public and likely perform better.

Yet the danger in this may be that when cities can’t control their own security because of incompetence or corruption, it is difficult for the national government to intervene in a way that doesn’t interfere with the mayor’s sovereignty.

In the end, this might be a shift worth making as this gets citizens to take more ownership in their local security. Right now, citizens can simply blame the far-away government in Kabul for their security problems. If, instead, they could petition the mayor to take stronger and more proactive measures, mayors would (and should) react more quickly and forcefully.

A political system that empowers Afghanistan’s diverse communities is the greatest remedy to extremism because it establishes insurmountable barriers to groups like the Taliban who seek control of the country.

To be sure, there are possible costs for turning over power to the citizens to elect their provincial and local leaders. Corruption and kingmaking at lower levels of government are also possible. Taking away the power of the president to remove corrupt or abusive governors quickly could further weaken democracy in Afghanistan.

But the chance to decrease some or much of the ethnic strife by some simple adjustments to the democratic process could be a prelude to overall peace and security in Afghanistan. By holding more provincial and local elections and sharing more power with citizens, Afghans may be able to build a sense of nationalism that includes an appreciation of the country’s ethnicities, cultures, languages, and heritage.

These ideas could be of value to peace negotiations led by delegates and leaders across Afghanistan. The Afghan people have developed a stronger sense of nationalism since overthrowing the internationally unrecognized Taliban regime in 2001. Making a handful of adjustments now to empower citizens to have more ownership of their security situation and get more voters to support local and national governance could be a wise move. Afghans deeply believe in freedom. Liberty for the nation and at the individual level can be further engrained by some modest power decentralization.

Shabnam Nasimi is a British Afghan political and social activist. She is the executive director of Conservative Friends of Afghanistan, which aims to strengthen the relationship between the United Kingdom and Afghanistan and supports a democratic culture that is inclusive, collaborative, and protects women’s rights. Twitter: @NasimiShabnam

Jason Criss Howk is a researcher who builds and professionalizes the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces and helps the Afghan government and international community conduct reintegration and peace-building activities. He writes and speaks regularly about Afghan-related topics.