What Is Missing From Afghan Peace Talks


Mr. Massoud is a politician in Panjshir, Afghanistan

April 14, 2020

The New York Times

A just political order in Afghanistan needs decentralization of power and an equitable distribution of resources among its people.

A mural of Zalmay Khalilzad, the American diplomat, and Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban leader, who signed the Doha agreement to end the war, in Kabul, Afghanistan.
Credit…Mohammad Ismail/Reuters

PANJSHIR VALLEY, Afghanistan — After four decades of conflict, Afghanistan seems poised to embrace superficial peace. The negotiations between the United States and the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, culminated in a peace agreement between the two sides. The agreement paved the way for a national peace dialogue between the Taliban and a conglomerate of Afghan political factions and figures led by the government of Afghanistan.

The people of Afghanistan, who have suffered for decades, are investing great hopes in these talks to settle the differences between the warring sides and achieve a permanent peace acceptable to all.

The most salient question begging for attention during the talks — expected to start soon — is understanding and resolving the key structural obstacles to the establishment of a lasting peace and just political order in postwar Afghanistan. Informal reports from Doha suggest that the Taliban, who are yet to show good faith in negotiations, have already declared their support for a highly centralized state system.

For a lasting peace and just political order to be established in Afghanistan, significant structural changes need to be made to our highly centralized political and administrative system that concentrates power and financial resources in the office of the president with little accountability.

The lack of an institutional power-sharing arrangement between Kabul and the provinces, and the winner-takes-all system in the central government drive a zealous competition for the presidency.

The current political structures were established by the Constitution of Afghanistan adopted in 2004, which is a revised version of the Constitution adopted in 1964 when the country was ruled by a monarchy. The 2004 Constitution may have assuaged the former monarchy’s beneficiaries, but it completely ignored the fundamental political transformation of the country through the upheavals of the past four decades. It has largely remained irrelevant to practical politics in Afghanistan.

The 2004 Constitution confers on the president the right to appoint and dismiss governors of the country’s 34 provinces, mayors, police chiefs, district governors, senators and other officials across the political system. The people they rule over have no democratic means of holding local authorities accountable, and this has created an environment of pervasive corruption.

Further, the centralized control over finances lies to an absurd extent with the presidency. For example, if a school in a remote village needs renovation, local and provincial leaders have to negotiate a maze of red tape and cumbersome procedures through the Kabul bureaucracy to obtain the president’s approval for budgetary allocation and rebuilding.

More dangerously, in a multiethnic society, the centralized unitary-presidential system has fanned the flames of internal conflict. The problem is exacerbated when a particular person or group holding the presidency resorts to divisive and ethnocentric policies in a country that is made of ethnic minorities. Such policies by the Afghan state has sharpened ethnic identity and nationalism among all ethnic groups.

My father, Ahmad Shah Massoud, the national hero of Afghanistan, was one of the few leaders in our history who was able to unite the ethnic groups under one banner. He brought together important Pashtun, Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara leaders.

Two days before the Sept. 11 attacks, two Al Qaeda suicide bombers posing as journalists assassinated my father. The two events were intertwined and forever changed the fate of both Afghans and Americans. In the 19 years since his killing, Afghanistan has lost that sense of solidarity among its ethnic groups that he was able to forge.

Last year, after realizing that Afghanistan is on the verge of disintegration again and might experience a brutal internal war, I decided to enter politics to continue my father’s path of bringing genuine peace to this country and to revive the unity and solidarity that he achieved.

Commander Massoud had proposed decentralization of political power and wealth based on the Swiss model, which would have saved political competition from being a zero-sum game. He believed that through devolution of power and resources to the provinces, social justice, equality and national unity can be established and the conflicts over power can be ended. He saw that as a building block to national unity in this war-torn country.

Afghanistan’s national unity government from 2014 to 2020 had an opportunity to make progress on better power-sharing and accountability. The agreement that underpinned the formation of the unity government bound President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah to amend the Constitution to create a new system where many of the powers of the president are reduced and transferred to an empowered prime minister. It was to be followed up by devolving power at the local governance level.

But the political leadership invested in maintaining the status quothwarted any meaningful reform. As a result, Kabul is experiencing a political crisis yet again; after the presidential election held in September both Mr. Ghani and Mr. Abdullah claimed to have won the presidency and have been unwilling to compromise. If they had brought about constitutional reform and taken steps toward decentralization, this crisis would have been avoided.

Kabul has failed to spend its development budget over the past 18 years. The provinces need to be allowed to keep a percentage of their revenues and play a direct role in economic development and the welfare of their inhabitants.

Decentralization will assuage the communities that believe their wealth has been diverted by Kabul to its favored regions. It can diffuse tensions among ethnic groups, which can lead to a partition of the country and help to solve our identity crisis.

Commander Massoud pointed us toward a lasting peace and a just political order that emphasized decentralization and an equitable distribution of resources among the people of Afghanistan. I hope to work to fulfill his dream.

As Afghans are about to gather soon for the talks, it is imperative that all sections of Afghan society are represented, that the question of decentralization is debated and that a consensus for subsequently amending the Constitution is built. We owe the people of Afghanistan a just and lasting peace.

What Is Missing From Afghan Peace Talks