The Hill, January 26, 2021
Afghanistan should be wary of a government with power sharing
The Afghan government has never been able to rule widely at the local level, leaving power brokers to enjoy certain autonomy and administer economic activities, counting on informal consultative bodies, such as community councils, and tribal law and customs
By Patric Karam
While the peace talks in Afghanistan are stalled until the administration of Joe Biden takes new action, calls for more power sharing mechanisms to represent manifold groups in the political system are gaining momentum. This is a tempting idea, and Afghans have had a taste of power sharing in recent years, starting with the appointment of Hamid Karzai as president with the diverse ethnic cabinet, and then the deal between Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah after an election dispute.
But the dangers of this consociational idea outweigh the benefits. Look no further than the disaster that befell Lebanon. In 1975, the Lebanese state all but collapsed and the country spiraled into civil war, in many ways due to entrenchment of society divisions in politics. Belligerents such as state elites, proxy actors, and militia groups exploited these sectarian identities through violence, cleaving society along communal lines in the pursuit of strategic interests. The rounds of massacres, kidnappings, assassinations, revenge killings, ethnic cleansing, and sexual violence were conducted in the name of sectarian identities across Lebanon.
Without a working state, Lebanese warlords carved out sectarian fiefdoms of communities they claimed to defend. Issues such as education, health care, postal service, electric power, and refuse collection became subject to the sectarian militias. By providing basic services, the militias extended coercive control of their communities. Instead of uniting the country, the 1989 Taif peace deal institutionalized the sectarian dynamics of the war by recalibrating the consociational system created at independence in order to accommodate the main Christian and Muslim sects in Lebanon. It also increased the number of seats in parliament, divided them between sects, turned the Maronite Christian president into a figurehead, and made the Sunni prime minister responsible to the legislature.
It let sectarianism be the bedrock of state and society relations, leaving a door open to renewed conflicts. Peace was achieved with the apparatus that ensured none of the groups could dominate the state. The Lebanese system of government today is built around this model with the spoils of public office and state resources doled out to sectarian elites based on a dark system of patronage. Ministerial and government posts are divided among leaders who use these roles as the basis for political favors within their own constituencies and also their own gains.
The Lebanese state has been unable to deliver satisfactory public services and social welfare. For instance, electricity provision is the fourth worst in the world. The system, abused by an elite that rebranded itself from militia to political party, permeates the public and private relations, and this elite has ensured continued access to power in the patronage networks. It has come under fire in national protests for corruption and mismanagement, as the country endures its worst economic recession and has to recover from the recent devastating blast at the port of Beirut.
As Afghanistan considers its future, it should seek to avoid the perils of sectarianism. The talks between the Taliban and the government are the best chance for Afghans to end the violence, reach a durable settlement, concur on the system of government, then move forward. Lebanon and Afghanistan are pluralistic, but management of pluralism in Afghanistan, which still has a fighting chance, should allow for cultural security while establishing a national identity. Afghanistan can only be built on what its constituents have in common to achieve consensus.
The Afghan government has never been able to rule widely at the local level, leaving power brokers to enjoy certain autonomy and administer economic activities, counting on informal consultative bodies, such as community councils, and tribal law and customs. While a strong central state is essential, greater administrative devolution of power tailored to the needs of the country will ensure its sovereignty.
But while the future of Afghanistan should be sensitive to and inclusive of informal institutions and representative of the diversity of its own people, enshrining differences in power sharing structures will be harmful not just for efforts to build the government but for its survival.
Patricia Karam is regional director of the Middle East and North Africa at the International Republican Institute that works to promote democracy.
Characters Count: 4787