Are Traditional Afghan Institutions Democratic?

Afghan Institutions Land, the State and War

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Non-Western Democracy?

“If we see seeking consent as a basic ingredient of democracy, then we can say that democracy itself occurs naturally among humans, even if it is far from inevitable,” writes David Stasavage in The Decline and Rise of Democracy. He makes a simple point with profound implications. It raises the possibility of genuine forms of non-western democracy with substantially different institutions and customs than most citizens in Western-style liberal democracies experience. More importantly, traditional institutions and cultures may involve more opportunities for participation and consent than their modern incarnations. 

Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili and Ilia Murtazashvili examine local forms of self-governance in Afghanistan to understand how they manage disputes over land and property. Jennifer’s research in particular considers how traditional forms of local governance establish an informal federalism even though its constitution did not recognize it. Over centuries the Afghan people developed an interconnected set of institutions to resolve conflicts in their local communities.

Many scholars refer to traditional institutions as roadblocks to modernization and development. But part of the problem is baked into the term ‘traditional.’ It implies a timeless quality that does not exist. Every culture evolves and transforms over time. Archaeologists recognize the evolution of primitive hunter-gatherer societies through different technological eras long before the agricultural revolution. So, it’s inevitable that a far more advanced culture like Afghanistan will continue to evolve and develop. 

Unfortunately, most Western scholars focus on what Afghanistan is not rather than what it is. Jennifer and Ilia break the mold in their new book Land, the State, and War: Property Institutions and Political Order in Afghanistan. They consider Afghanistan as it is rather than what they want it to be. This starting point opens up new insights with broader implications for how we think about governance and democracy. 

Afghan Institutions

It’s difficult to consider Afghanistan without reflecting on the twenty year American War and its nation building project. American involvement in the region has portrayed Afghan governance as a problem to fix. It focuses on the corruption of the Afghan state and its warlords. However, it also ignores the practical governance that happens in the villages. Indeed, local governance affects the Afghan people more intimately and directly. Remarkably, it remains largely informal. Jennifer and Ilia refer to it as self-governance. In other words, it exists outside the influence of the state, but performs many of the functions modern society expects from the state. 

“Village governance… consists of a competitive balance of authority between three distinct organizations: maliks, shuras/jirgas, and mullahs,” according to Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili. The Malik serves as a magistrate or judge, but is better described as.a representative. They often manage records of land titles and help mediate disputes almost like a bureaucrat. But they also serve as an intermediary between the people and the state. While in some communities the people actively choose the Malik through elections or consensus, it can also become hereditary. Yet even in these instances, the Malik must remain responsive to the community or else they find ways to replace them.

The shura is an informal deliberative body used to resolve disputes in the community. It is not a standing political body nor does it involve the entire community. Rather it includes anyone affected so it can involve the entire community, but can also include just those affected. At the same time, its purpose is to include as many parties as possible to provide a clear resolution. Finally, mullahs are religious figures who help clarify religious law. 

The Failure of the State

Efforts to construct a state or government in Afghanistan have largely ignored traditional Afghan institutions for local governance. Rather than find ways to legitimize and integrate Afghan institutions into the constitution, framers have approached Afghan governance as a blank slate. The United States deserves blame for its arrogance, but it’s also not the first to take this approach. Indeed, every attempt at state-building dating back to the nineteenth century has imposed a centralized state and ignored the existence of decentralized forms of governance. 

The Afghan people largely distrust the state as extractive rather than additive. In other words, the state takes resources through taxation and corruption, but rarely provides value through public goods and services. They find value in their local institutions rather than ones imposed from above like the courts. The disconnect makes it difficult for the state to legitimize itself, because it finds itself compared to an informal parallel structure that performs better. 

The United States tried to overcome the drawbacks of a centralized state through investments into infrastructure. Through massive public investments, the state did deliver public goods, but many projects failed to meet local needs nor did it plan for the necessary maintenance. But most importantly, it failed to integrate projects into existing Afghan institutions. They built schools without involving local communities to ensure they had students and teachers to fill them. They constructed roads without engaging communities to develop a system for their maintenance. The irony is Afghans have institutions developed like the mirab to maintain irrigation systems. International donors missed an opportunity to engage existing Afghan institutions and find ways to develop new ones to produce long-term development. 

Lessons for Democracy

Institutions of local self-governance in Afghanistan are not perfect. For starters men typically have greater opportunities for participation than women. In many ways, traditional institutions tend to reinforce norms that favor individuals based on gender, religion, or ethnicity. At the same time, these institutions are not immutable either. Jennifer mentions on the podcast that she has met female maliks. Unlike traditional institutions in the West, women are rarely prohibited from participation in shuras or informal leadership positions. So, they hold the potential for even greater inclusion as they adapt and evolve into a modern society. Indeed, Jennifer and Ilia point out these institutions have already grown more participatory and representative in recent years. 

But my reading of the Land, the State, and War is not limited to Afghanistan. It serves as a window into Afghan society, but also opens our eyes to other possibilities for participatory governance. Too often political theorists focus on institutions developed in Western cultures. However, it’s natural to assume many different institutional arrangements are possible for a democracy. Rather than imposing institutions on other cultures, it is possible to find shared values consistent with democracy to build upon. More importantly, other incarnations of democracy may even provide insights into the nature of democracy itself. As Richard Youngs explains, “In the years ahead, variation in democratic forms is likely to increase, and might even help to head off resurgent authoritarianism.”

Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili and Ilia Murtazashvili join the podcast tomorrow to discuss Afghanistan’s local institutions for self-governance and their book Land, the State, and War: Property Institutions and Political Order in Afghanistan.

Further Reading

Tom Ginsburg and Aziz Huq  (2014), “What Can Constitutions Do? The Afghan Case,” Journal of Democracy

Jørgen Møller (2021) “The Medieval Roots of Democracy,” Journal of Democracy

Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili (2022) “The Collapse of Afghanistan,” Journal of Democracy

Ilia Murtazashvili and Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili (2021) Land, the State, and War: Property Institutions and Political Order in Afghanistan

Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili (2014) “Informal Federalism: Self-Governance and Power Sharing in Afghanistan,” Publius: The Journal of Federalism

Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili (2022), “The Endurance and Evolution of Afghan Customary Governance,” Current History

Sarah Repucci and Amy Slipowitz (2022) Freedom in the World:2022: The Global Expansion of Authoritarian Rule

David Stasavage (2020) The Decline and Rise of Democracy

Craig Whitlock (2021) The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War

Richard Youngs (2015) “Exploring’“Non-Western Democracy‘,” Journal of Democracy

Democracy Paradox Podcast

Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili and Ilia Murtazashvili on Afghanistan, Local Institutions, and Self-Governance

David Stasavage on Early Democracy and its Decline

More Episodes from the Podcast

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