Importance of safeguarding institutions in the Afghan Peace Process

By Naveed Noormal
August 22, 2020
Image source: Radio Liberty

Talks between the government of Afghanistan and the Taliban were due in March 2020, a month after the US signed a deal with the Taliban to end the United States’ longest war. Though this process is yet to begin, several events have transpired during the past few months, paving the way for direct talks between the government of Afghanistan and the Taliban. The latest took place this month at a grand assembly called "Loya Jirga" convened in Kabul to recommend the release of 400 Taliban prisoners – all of whom had committed major atrocities. The difficult decision taken by the Loya Jirga and the government of Afghanistan to release the prisoners was highly appreciated by Afghanistan's international partners and NATO allies who are renewing their commitment for a unified, sovereign, and democratic Afghanistan. 

With all the Taliban's conditions for commencing peace talks with the Afghan government are now being fulfilled,talks are tentatively due to start shortly in Doha-Qatar. All the same, no official agenda has yet been set or shared with the public for the parties' talks. As the negotiation team is getting ready to start the direct talks, a number of high priorities "gains to be preserved" list has been drafted by different government and non-government institutions. 

It is important that in addition to preserving gains such as human rights and democratic values, an emphasis on institution-building is included in all the priority lists. Strong institutions lead to sustainable development, enables rule of law, supports economic growth, and reduces poverty. History shows that the Taliban have not been able to provide any plan for institutional reform or an alternative to the current progress of institution building. It is therefore of utmost importance and significance for them to realize the realities of the emerging Afghanistan and understand that the future Afghanistan must be built on the foundations of existing institutions, all of which already reflect the aspiration of sustainable peace, and a free and democratic Afghanistan. 

Without a well-functioning government apparatus and an efficient, productive economy, no modern state will be able to maintain basic functions. To realize the prospects of sustainable and inclusive development and to ensure the long-term success of an accountable, and effective public service delivery, building a country-wide network of institutions is imperative. Establishing such a 'connective' tissue naturally presents several challenges. However, the country's pre-existing ecosystem of institutions constitutes a considerable resource that can be effectively utilized to advance and strengthen the institution-building process. 

A brief review of the country's contemporary history brings to our attention that modernization of the Afghan state institutions began even before the country gained its independence in 1919. It started during the reign of Abdul Rahman Khan (1880 to 1901) followed by the upcoming leaders such as Habibullah Khan (1901 to 1919) who marched towards constitutionalism and introduced print newspapers and public education to the population. Following in his grandfather and father's footsteps, King Amanullah, after securing Afghanistan's independence, launched a comprehensive ambitious state-building program aimed at unifying the-then mostly rural and decentralized country. For this reform to be successfully implemented, however, a centralized and sturdy leftist system, such as that of Ataturk in Turkey, or Reza Shah in Iran was crucial.

During the reign of King Zahir (1933 to 1973), there form agenda and efforts to build institutions slowed down and became increasingly vulnerable – for many reasons including  King Zahir’s decision to let organization of political parties to deny threats from leftist. This trend continued until 1973 when Sardar Mohammad Daud Khan overthrew the monarchy. Daud Khan was quick to state that his decision to perform a coup d'état was motivated by the need to fight the corrupt government and promote social justice. However, despite his rhetorical emphasis on institution-building and improving governance in the new "Republic of Afghanistan," he did not conquer much ground in governance and institution-building. Likewise, after the 1978 socialist coup that toppled President Mohammad Daud and the subsequent invasion of the Red Army, little was done to build and strengthen state institutions. 

This remained the case until 2001 when the UN Security Council issued a resolution and authorized the US-led international coalition to launch a military campaign aimed at removing the Taliban and dismantling Al-Qaeda. This was the beginning of the war on terror campaign that continues to this day. With the Taliban removed from power, the US and the international community remained in Afghanistan to ensure the country would not become a place for future security threats against the US and its allies. To ensure an effective and functioning government capable of securing itself and providing services to its population, in what the international community labelled as "winning hearts and minds," they engaged in an institution-building effort. These efforts also included extensive programming to re-integrate remaining insurgents into Afghan society. 

Although the approach largely failed to defeat the Taliban militarily, it played an essential part in restarting the process of building a modern Afghanistan, a country with a sound network of functioning institutions. However, this process soon turned into a project-based approach among partnering countries rather than a national approach to strengthening institutions. Each country started focusing on a specific sector of their interest. The once again decentralized approach compromised the harmonization of nationwide reforms, and as such, building a connective tissue of institutions covering the whole country flopped.

President Karzai (2002 - 2014) pursued a more coherent approach towards institution-building during his second term. But increased constraints on resources compared to those available in his first tenure created a significant obstacle. While the progress towards building a more intelligent, committed and public interest oriented human capital continued at a steady pace, the availability of financial resources necessary decreased steadily during this time. This trend continued until 2014 when Ashraf Ghani was elected as president. An expert at failed states, President Ghani's priority as laid out in his “Charter of Transformation and Continuity” was to build strong institutions. He introduced an ambitious set of anti-corruption policies, which constitute a key ingredient to building a network of effective institutions. President Ghani has also rightly recognized the importance of promoting opportunities for a new generation of young educated politicians and officials who would necessarily be the cornerstone of any institution building effort. The combination of right policies and capable human capital are the necessary foundations for achieving strong and effective institutions in Afghanistan. Afghanistan’s international partners, while recognizing these efforts, must support the ‘republic’ to utilize this opportunity and strengthen any peace process by continuing to support the formation of strong and effective institutions. These institutions will, in turn, ensure efficient public service delivery and can guarantee sustainable development in a country coming out of multiple decades of war and destruction.

A. Naveed Noormal is an Afghan Foreign Service Officer currently serving at the Embassy of Afghanistan in London. He tweets @NaveedNoormal