The Fate of the Village Councils: The Emirate’s effort to institute hegemony over rural Afghanistan

Jelena Bjelica • AAN Team

Afghanistan Analysts Network

Afghanistan’s Community Development Councils (CDCs), which were established under the Islamic Republic by the National Solidarity Programme (NSP) and its successor Citizen’s Charter, have been abolished by the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA). Government bodies have been told to coordinate economic projects with ulema councils instead. Afghanistan, however, has a longstanding tradition of grassroots, collective, decision-making and problem-solving bodies called shuras or village councils that long predate the CDCs. These shuras have played a crucial role in village life, praised, for example, by the late anthropologist Louis Dupree, for carrying “the country safely over its post-1933 internal power crises.” AAN’s Jelena Bjelica and the AAN team interviewed villagers across Afghanistan between November 2022 and June 2024 to learn how their shuras had fared under IEA rule. Many interviewees reported that even before the ban, their shuras had become non or barely functional, ignored by a government which prefers to work with village heads, often ones it has handpicked.

A Community Development Council (CDC) meeting in Herat province. Source: National Solidarity Programme/Flickr, 15 November 2010

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The picture that emerged from our research was of the slow demise of village councils/CDCs (interviewees tended to use the terms interchangeably) since the Islamic Emirate returned to power. It has preferred to work with individuals or groups, either head men (maleks or arbabsor ulema councils, which, in general, it had appointed or at least approved.

Even before Amir Hibatullah Akhundzada’s May 2024 abolishment of the CDCs, the Emirate’s intentions had been discernible in the way it had diminished and marginalised the councils, in many cases, rendering them inactive. In addition, very few shuras had managed to keep their female members -–both the NSP and Citizens Charter programmes had mandated the equal participation of women in the CDCs. However, more than half of our interviewees rued this loss, if only for practical reasons, such as the shura’s inability to ascertain and address issues concerning women in the community.

The letter abolishing CDCs also indicated that future delivery of aid would have to be coordinated with ulema councils. NGOs, the World Bank and United Nations agencies, which have premised their work on working with CDCs, may now face problems. The relationship between the Emirate and the aid industry was already fraught. Navigating this latest blow to what many aid actors had considered a mechanism for ensuring equitable, local aid distribution will take some careful footwork.

Over the past century, shuras have undergone many changes, but one thing has remained a constant– they have always been a bridge between the community and external players – shielding, negotiating and trying to get resources. The Emirate’s move to abolish the shuras in favour of state-appointed or approved head men or ulema councils points to a redrawing of local-level power dynamics.

Whether this is a final nail in the coffin of Afghanistan’s village councils does, however, seem unlikely. In rural Afghanistan, shuras have survived the test of time because of their centrality to village life. They did not begin with the Soviet occupation or the Islamic Republic and it is highly questionable whether they will cease to exist with the IEA’s order to abolish them.

Whatever the future brings, if history is any indication, shuras will re-emerge as an integral part of Afghanistan’s social fabric as key local self-organised and self-governing structures. Once the initial jolt of the Amir’s ban has faded, we may see village shuras, as before, reinventing themselves under a new banner and perhaps with redefined horizons.

Edited by Roxanna Shapour and Kate Clark 

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The Fate of the Village Councils: The Emirate’s effort to institute hegemony over rural Afghanistan