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

Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili

Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili and Ilia Murtazashvili are associate professors at the University of Pittsburgh and the authors of the recent book Land, the State, and War: Property Institutions and Political Order in Afghanistan. Jen is also the founding director and Ilia is an associate director of the Center for Governance and Markets.

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It wasn’t because Afghan social norms don’t support democracy. They do. And Afghans understood darn well what they were supposed to have. But they never even got the minimum of what they were promised in the constitution.

Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili

Key Highlights

  • Description of the role of shuras, maliks, and mullahs in local governance
  • How property rights help explain local governance
  • Why has the state always been ineffective in Afghanistan
  • A little history on Afghanistan
  • Are local, self-governing institutions in Afghanistan democratic?

Podcast Transcript

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Today’s guests are Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili and Ilia Murtazashvili. They are associate professors at the University of Pittsburgh and the authors of the recent book Land, the State, and War: Property Institutions and Political Order in Afghanistan.

Our conversation explores the traditional forms of local governance that sound surprisingly democratic. It’s an account very different from what you’ll hear that focuses on the Taliban or warlords. And I don’t want to idealize traditional governance in Afghanistan, but it does open up the possibility to think about different forms of non-western democracy and that is a topic we will continue to revisit in the future. But for now… this is my conversation with Jen and Ilia Murtazashvili…


Jen and Ilia Murtazashvili. welcome to the Democracy Paradox.

Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili

Pleasure to be here.

Ilia Murtazashvili

Great to be here.


So, Jen and Ilia, I loved your book and what I liked about it so much was how you explain Afghanistan differently than anyone else that I have read. I find your depiction of local informal governance, so informative. In a recent paper, Jen wrote, “Village governance is not only persistent, but also that it consists of a competitive balance of authority between three distinct organizations: maliks shuras, and mullahs.” So, I want to start there. I want to peel the onion of local governance back by explaining these institutions that are really lost on people when they think about Afghanistan. So, let’s start with the shura. What exactly is it?

Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili

So, a shura or a jirga or a jalasa or a majlis, these are different names that communities use for convenings. And so, in the book, I refer to them broadly as shura, because that’s the Arabic term. It’s actually in the Quran, the discussion of a shura, this deliberative process exists. And so, actually, you know, when we talk about justification of democracy in Islam often times people use this part of the Quran to justify a sort of Islamic basis of democracy. But in a community, a shura or this council convenes when an issue arises. And so, don’t think of this as a permanent body. Think of this as a council that comes together based on the need to solve some particular problems.

So, if there’s a conflict between two families about a property dispute in a community, the people who are the relevant parties for that will be present. If there’s something that involves the entire community, the entire community has the right to be present. And so, one of the things that’s really important in the Shura process or a jirga process – because this really is a process. It’s not that it’s just a one-off meeting where everybody raises their hand. It’s a consensus procedure. It’s a procedure where people make consensus over an issue. So, persuasion is really important. So, you want to be able to talk to people and communicate. And so, you want to come out of this process with no losers, that everybody’s on the same page.

And one of the really remarkable things about it is that every household has the right to participate in this process. And so, a lot of people on the outside will fixate on the fact that well, it’s only men that participate. Well, usually yes, that’s the case. But if you contrast that to democracy, actually few people had the right to participate in that in Afghanistan as it existed. So, what people were doing was unfortunately saying, ‘Oh, the traditional system is so bad. It’s so backwards. The state is the wonderful alternative.’ But actually, more people, if you look at where people could participate, they could participate more actively in their traditional or their customary structures than the state.


So, when we think about a shura, you mentioned how it deals with disputes oftentimes regarding landowners. Is it mainly a deliberative body kind of like a jury that is dealing with what we would think of as a judicial proceeding or as a deliberative body that’s determining collective action, kind of like a legislative body?

Ilia Murtazashvili

You know, when we were looking at property disputes, we kind of came into it with the perspective that when you have a dispute, you just need someone to adjudicate someone who you agree on as a judge of sorts, In Afghanistan, the shura, it’s an opportunity for people to come together and deliberate, to hear, you know, the facts behind the dispute, to give people opportunities to present evidence, you know, and then from that you get an authoritative decision. And I think when we look at, you know, the origins of property institutions and secure property rights, our interest is really in what contributes to the legitimacy and security of those decisions with a view that the state is not the only source of authority.

And so, from that perspective if you’re looking at the judge as kind of generalized institution that makes decisions, it can be either an individual or a collection of individuals. What matters is that what comes from that is an authoritative decision. And in Afghanistan that can come from a shura or it can come from other bodies. And that’s where our approach to governance, to look beyond say a deliberative council, is critical, because you could also appeal to a malik in terms of their features to a village representative, or mullahs, or various other religious actors who can also come in and resolve disputes.

And so, when it comes down to it, what you want for property when there are disputes is that agreement on a judge, but what functions as a judge in Afghanistan, its forms, require us to think a lot about, you know, Afghan customary institutions. And so, that’s kind of how our work links to all this rich empirical evidence on village governance.


No, and that’s fair. And I don’t want to try to confound Western institutions into it. I know that these are their own institutions. But, of course, I’m trying to understand exactly what it is that these different institutions mean for people who might be in a Western institution. You mentioned maliks. I found that those were really fascinating, because it came across to me as an informal form of representation. It even sounded as if it had almost a sense of elections. Kind of like what we think of as democracy to be able to choose those people. Why don’t you explain a little bit about what the malik is and maybe kind of differentiate how that might be slightly different than what we think of as more institutionalized forms of representation that we find in the West?

Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili

So, a malik or an oq soqol or a kham or a namayenda or an arbab, these are different names that people use to describe these things across Afghanistan. The malik, I call this individual a first among equals, usually he, but I found women as well who were maliks. They are those people who represent the community to the outside world. And so, this is a representative, not a leader. And so, in a lot of the public discourse on Afghanistan, I found to be incredibly flawed over the past 20 years. We talk about tribal chiefs or chiefs or village heads or feudal lords and actually Afghanistan was never a feudal society. It doesn’t have tribal chiefs. It has traditional structures, but no chiefs. It doesn’t have chiefdoms. It doesn’t have anything like that.

These are leaders of villages who are representatives and this person as I just mentioned represents the community to the outside world. So, this person usually has to be literate, has to be able to read government documents. A community selects this person, but often this is a hereditary position. But you have to come from a good family with a clean reputation who’s seen as fair, a fair broker. And often this is not the richest family in town. Now, historically there were landowners in parts of Afghanistan, large landowners, but those large landholding systems were never as widespread as we thought they were. And they were never the source of governance, the way that a malik is.

So, what’s really fascinating about this system is that throughout rural Afghanistan, you still find district governors who rely on these maliks to communicate, to govern, even though they understand that the maliks represent the villages and not the state. And that’s really unusual, because in Afghanistan there is no formal government below the district level, the county level in the United States. So, these maliks represent the community, not the government. But then government officials need to work with someone at the village level. So, they’ll summon them for different things and how they’re summoning them now, it’ll be really interesting to see how the Taliban are dealing with them. But I’m sure the Taliban are dealing with them.


So, let’s say that you have somebody who is corrupt that is a malik, somebody who is doing a poor job, and everybody in the community recognizes that they’re doing a poor job. Do they choose a new malik? Do they just ignore that person? What happens?

Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili

So, you know, I found several cases of this, because a malik is too important for the people to like have some just corrupt dude doing this work. They need someone who’s competent because this is really the lifeblood of the community. And so, interviews I’ve done over the years, people would mention, you see a malik would take too much money. A malik often expects to be paid unless they’re from a wealthy family and sometimes they are and they don’t take payment. But oftentimes they are not and so, they expect some compensation for the work that they do.

And if people take too much, if they’re seen in cahoots with the government, it’s like a slow process, a shaming process or they’ll find some reasons slowly to remove that person or that person took another job. So, there would be a way to remove that person, because these people did not have such vested interests. So, it was easier to remove them. For the most part government officials also rotated quite frequently. So, you know, if there was any kind of patronage relationship, they would often be disrupted.


But it sounds like the malik was much more likely to stay there long-term. They might even stay there for a significant part of their working life, let’s say. And it sounds as if the selection of that person is somewhat representative, but still informal enough that it allows there to be change. But typically, it’s going to give the benefit of the doubt to the person who’s in that position. Do I understand the process right or this institution correctly?

Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili

You know, the selection process is really varied. So, you know, I found in one village in Herat, they were using ballot boxes. But it’s a consensus procedure. So, if someone has to be selected to be the Malik, it’s by consent. They will use a Shura process to select that person. So, that’s usually how it’s done, but sometimes it’s hereditary because the family’s well-liked They’re seen as defending the interests of the community. They have donated money to the community. They are seen as protecting community interests. So, there’s cohesion around that community, that family maintaining that position.


Now, the third institution that you mentioned in that quote was the mullahs. And I’m going to ask you to help explain how they fit into local governance before we take a step back and say how do these kind of interrelate? So, why don’t we start there. What is a mullah and how does that fit into local governance, so we can kind of understand each one of these parts?

Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili

So, the mullah is the religious figure in the community. And often there’s more than one because a community will have mosques. Right? And so, a mullah is the religious leader usually leading a mosque. And a really interesting thing about Afghanistan is people will tell you how big their village is by how many mosques there are. So, they’ll say, ‘Oh, are you from a big village?’ ‘Yes, we have five mosques.’ ‘Oh, okay.’ So, this is sort of a measure as well. You know, so Islam of course plays an important role in society. And so, a mullah’s job is to interpret the law or to execute Islamic law. But mullahs are not clerics in the sense that they’re not appointed by someone else.

These are village level positions. There is no hierarchy in Sunni Islam. So, if you want to resolve a dispute, you can go to several of them. You can venue shop. Right? And find one who might be impartial. But, on the other hand, there are some very well-respected mullahs and local religious leaders who people look to and trust. But mullahs have a very prescribed area of jurisdiction that’s prescribed by Islamic law. So, often those issues involve inheritance. For example, because Islam is clear about, you know, who’s responsible for inheritance. So, not all property disputes involve inheritance. But if there are property issues that do involve inheritance, then a mullah will be more likely to be involved in those issues.


So, as we’re trying to piece this all together and understand how these different institutions intersect with one another. Your book actually focuses a lot on the way that the Afghan people interact with the land itself and using the idea of the land as a way to kind of understand the way that local governance actually occurs. So, can you give an example of a dispute between Afghan people that involves the land and how some of these institutions might interact with one other in particular? I’m kind of curious if there’s ever disputes between them. Like, if a malik decides one thing and then maybe the shura has a different authority and it creates conflict, is there any of that or is it very clear and black and white?

Ilia Murtazashvili

Yeah, I mean I think that’s a great question. The book is really considering the relationship between land and governance. Property is always a construct that requires thinking about someone who recognizes that property. It really doesn’t exist outside of its social context, outside of its governance context. And in Afghanistan, I think a key starting point for thinking about property is to think first about how that property is represented. And it’s not often with a legal title, you know. So, if you step outside of Afghanistan, most countries, you talk about property, you’re talking about something that has a legal title attached to it.

But in Afghanistan, many people have customary deeds. Indeed, a vast majority of people in rural areas where much of the focus of our book is on have customary deeds. And these might not even be anywhere written down and if they are written down, someone has to keep these deeds. And oftentimes that’s going to be a malik who is both a representative, but there’s also in a sense, local public administrator. And so, if we’re going to say – Well, how is property represented in many communities in Afghanistan? How do you represent the ownership of land? It’s with these customary deeds and there’s going to be disputes over them.

And I think the key to our book and our approach and how we look at things is to look at the structure of village governance in Afghanistan as providing kind of a competitive framework to deal with disputes that might arise in the sense that, you know, if there’s one body that you aren’t satisfied with, as far as the results, there might be opportunities to appeal to other actors. You know, so if a Shura is unavailable or if it’s hard to convene a shura, a malik might be available for some types of property disputes. Those involving, say inheritance, a mullah might be someone you appeal to. If the mullah is not considered reliable, then a shura can essentially hear just about any dispute that it’s willing to hear.

And so, that would provide an opportunity in terms of the interaction within these institutions having available multiple forums and really, it’s that there aren’t strict boundaries sometimes between these forums. You might have a Shura that will include as part of the deliberations a malik and mullah may participate as well. But what all of this results in is essentially responsive governance when it comes to land.

So, you have a means to allocate land through customary deeds and these are privately owned. I mean, a lot of people might think, ‘Well in Afghanistan, maybe it’s common property or collective ownership.’ But it’s really private ownership. You have customary deeds and you have a framework to resolve these that in a sense approximates alternative venues to resolve disputes. But you oftentimes don’t have to look to multiple venues because any one of these is typically going to be considered legitimate and that’s what provides a sense of ownership security in many areas of Afghanistan even though people don’t have legal title.


So, Ilia, the way that you’re describing these informal forms of governance that are able to kind of resolve some of these disputes or conflicts over land, it sounds to me a little bit like how the British common law procedure kind of evolved. Do you see a lot of parallels to the way that British common law evolved to this or am I making too much of a stretch?

Ilia Murtazashvili

No, that’s a great observation as well. I mean, I became interested in this in part, because I had been writing on the U.S. frontier and the ways in which land was claimed and settled mostly during the 19th century. And the way that occurred was through a very decentralized process through, you know, individuals, found land that they wanted, established an association, and the courts in the United States were very much responsive to what was happening on the ground. And so, that kind of process, I think, more closely approximates how much of property law at the local level evolved in Afghanistan in the sense that it does come from society.

Now, where it differs is that in the United States context, historically, once people settled the land, they oftentimes did secure legal recognition of their rights. And the courts were responsive to those claims. And so, you had the kind of gradual evolution of property rules in the United States in response to local conditions. In Afghanistan you have a decentralized process for how people came to own land. You have local institutions for how to resolve disputes over land. But there’s always been a barrier to the formalization of those rights. And so, there wasn’t a progression where you take customary deeds and you go and you formalize them and the courts then are responsive to disputes.

The challenge is that when the government has come in, you know, they haven’t really been seen as especially credible. And so, people make a rational decision to stick with their customary deeds rather than try to go the legal route. It’s not surprising if you understand Afghanistan, but it’s surprising if you come into this question of property rights reading, say Hernando de Soto’s work which is really about legal titling being the kind of foundation for prosperity. And while de Soto recognizes that there are constraints, he tends to see a natural progression from de facto property rights or informal property rights to legal titling.

But in Afghanistan you see that what you really have to do is think about the government, because if the government can’t commit credibly to property rights and doesn’t have that administrative structure in place, you’re not going to have that kind of decentralized evolution of property rights that ultimately translate into strong and effective formal rights that are responsive to local conditions. So, there are many parallels, but also Afghanistan is a very different context because you don’t have as effective of formal courts. And so, that creates kind of a wedge in the transition of property rights from customary to legal rights.


Yeah, that really illuminates what blew me away about your book was that when I hear especially international relations scholars talk about Afghanistan, it’s this idea that Afghanistan was almost like a tabula rasa in terms of the state and in terms of law. That there was nothing there. That they couldn’t govern themselves. That we had to start everything from scratch. And what blows me away about your work is that you point out that there was a lot more substance there in terms of institutions and governance. That they had a lot more ability that was completely ignored when the Americans and even others in the past have tried to institute and tried to build the state. That they just ignored these traditional institutions of governance.

So, Jen, why is it that the Afghan government, as they tried to construct a state, why is it that they weren’t able to better integrate these traditional institutions into its government?

Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili

Because the international community never wanted them to be integrated. And I would just want to go back to your bigger question about international relations where we are watching events right now unfold in Ukraine. And, once again, you know, we’re hearing IR scholars talk about deterrence, talk about realism and restraint and, all of these catchphrases and all of their theories. And when your theories are driving reality, you’re going to miss a lot. And so, you know, a question I think that this book is really helping me sort of think about is, if your answers to every question are the same, then it means you’re not looking at the evidence.

That means you’re not looking at the place that you’re studying. So, if you are, you know, whatever perspective a liberal internationalist, if you’re a realist and you’re looking at Afghanistan and coming up with the same answer that you had before, it means you’re not taking – or you’re looking at Ukraine, for example, it means you’re not taking Ukraine seriously. So, here we’re taking Afghanistan seriously, trying to understand how it’s governed. And this process actually began when I was doing field work for a previous book that came up about five years ago.

I came from an aid background. I had thought the international community, their work was going to be very, very effective. I was reading about many plans that were made. I was quite excited about them, but what I saw in practice really shocked me. And then I saw how resilient communities were and everybody throws around this buzzword resilience like it’s, you know, a really magical thing. And then it’s sitting there before their eyes and they don’t want to deal with it, because it doesn’t conform to their box or it doesn’t look like the way they thought it would.

And so, why wasn’t customary authority incorporated? Because people believed in the power of the state and they believed in this wonderful state the international community was going to build, was going to solve a lot of problems. And when people were comparing communities, the really rough shape of communities, they don’t conform nicely to our institutional ideals. We try to make them do that in this book, but they’re uneven and they’re not going to look like, you know, cookie cutter formal institutions. So, people want this. They want predictability. They want something that they can deal with. So, the international community had really no interest in decentralizing authority. The international community was always in Afghanistan for a very short period of time. And so, ‘let’s just consolidate a state and get out.’ Afghan leaders had absolutely no interest in decentralizing authority.

So, what they did is they adopted. a constitution from the 1960s which was heavily centralized and the international community said, ‘Oh, this is an indigenous Afghan constitution.’ It came from the 1960s. Well, the Afghan constitution wasn’t just from the 1960s. It was part of a series of very authoritarian constitutions. These were authoritarian constitutions, authoritarian rules, the international community put in place. They were not democratic. They just slapped democracy on top of it and said, ‘Here. Here you go.’ But there was no local governance. There was no opportunity to participate. And what Afghans really wanted after all these years was really a chance to participate and they were never given that opportunity.


So Jen, I mean, you just went through a lot of ideas that really come through in the book: the way in which a lot of the important aspects of democracy is really at the local level; the fact that there was a lot of misunderstandings of how to be able to bring democracy into Afghanistan; and finally, a big point, which was that when we tried to create a state within Afghanistan, it was very centralized and everything began top down.

But the West were not the first to try to impose a state from the top down onto Afghanistan. I mean, they’re, one of many. In fact, the Taliban has now taken power and when they had power earlier, they tried to do the same exact thing. They were trying to do a top-down version of the state as well before them others. You even mentioned that going all the way back into the 1960s, the constitution was very centralized. So, Ilia, when we’re looking at Afghanistan, why is it that just about everybody who’s tried to create the state in Afghanistan has been so ineffective at governance and at establishing some form of state in the country?

Ilia Murtazashvili

You know, I come at things from an institutional perspective. I spend a lot of time thinking about the property rights school in economics and one of the key lessons in the property rights school is that if you want to create good institutions, the way to do it is that you look at what works locally and then you build up formal institutions on that. If it comes to economic institutions, the lesson is pretty clear. Property rights that are a reflection of local conditions are going to be more effective in encouraging productive uses of assets: ownership, security, and the like. And then the question becomes, well, what kind of political institutions make those property rights effective and credible in the long run?

And that is, in general, going to be some situation where you have some constraints or restraints on government, because once the government has more power, it tends to engage in predation. There’s also a presumption that the kind of good institutions that we have tend to emerge through a local process, informal process, a spontaneous process even. And that applies to things like trade and the emergence of property rights. Now, if you want to take all of that and then try to understand the broad sweep of Afghan history, a lot of Afghan rulers have looked at economic under-development and their approach to improving development has been very centralized. They’ve tried to create new institutions and impose them on people without necessarily taking into account what has already been shown to work locally.

And so, if you look at like the Afghan Communist Party when it was in power after 1979, what they did is they looked out and they proscribed that. The problem for development was that, you know, you had these customary and quasi-feudal institutions and you had to come in and break that up. But, in fact, property institutions didn’t necessarily work poorly and people certainly opposed redistribution of land and the breakup of land and parceling it out into small sections. And so, you know, you say, ‘Well, why did the communists do that?’ Well, there was no popular control over them. So, they were going into villages where they didn’t know really what was going on. They came from other areas and they tried to impose rules as any imperialist would, you know.

I mean, when you try to impose rules on the countryside, you know, it’s internal imperialism, but this is also something that occurred historically. Abdur Rahman in the 1880s, 1890s had his own vision of modernization. It was also tied in with like Pashtun nationalism. And so, you had not only an effort to kind of create new property rights through a very centralized process, but tremendous inequities in whose rights were respected. And those legacies tend to last today. There’s not much accountability of rulers. They perceive centralization as a way to improve prospects for development. And all of that is inconsistent with what we know about how good institutions tend to emerge which is through a spontaneous process with constraints on political actors.

And so, the absence of constraints on political actors is really something that we highlight in this book, but in a lot of our work that’s a challenge. And just as a historical matter, if you look back through Afghan history, you know, between 1750 and 1900 there wasn’t a lot of economic development, but you did see from 1750 to about 1850, 1860 the development of trade routes, the creation of basic private property rights. But then as the state began to centralize its authority or attempted to do so, you know, in the 1870s, 1880s, 1890s, you had a weakening of property rights and a destruction of trade.

You know, in our book, we mentioned how Abdur Rahman, you know, in the 1880s banned railroads. I mean, how can you have economic development without railroads? But his rationale was railroads could also bring foreign troops. So, you ban them. So, the challenge in Afghanistan, it comes from that political centralization and basically a lack of appreciation for institutions that have been proven to work.

Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili

And I should say that, you know, Abdur Rahman Khan, who Ilia just talked about, people called him the Iron Amir. He ruled Afghanistan from 1880 to 1901 and he left a violent legacy on Afghanistan. So, we talked about the 1960s and the constitution, but really the political forms that we saw in Afghanistan from the 1880s until today were pretty consistent with the central government having a lot of power and in that power being able to appoint all officials at the subnational level and ruling the country with extraordinary amounts of violence. I mean, there were no local accountability checks and that’s what made the customary system so different from the formal structures and why people preserved it.

And one of the things that we found was that this customary system was actually much stronger during the past 20 years with all of this money from the international community to build a state, because people were so hungry for this. And they could adapt these local institutions. They could change them. They could do things to them that they couldn’t do to their own government where they had no say. Nobody was elected at the local level. The state was designed for control and after 2001 people kind of expected a change. And okay, maybe not a fully decentralized system, maybe not a federal system, but at least some nod at the local level, local elections for local leaders. I mean, nothing at all.

Everybody was appointed by the center. This generated vast amounts of corruption. We should also say, you know, one thing that we haven’t spoken about is that this legacy of centralization of Abdur Rahman Khan’s legacy which casts a huge shadow on Afghanistan today is really felt hard by the country’s ethnic minorities who were discriminated against by the Afghan monarchy, especially the Hazara communities, the Shia communities, who Abdur Rahman Khan forcibly uprooted, resettled, and, you know, Hazaras will tell you this was a genocide that he committed against their populations. And so, these issues are very tightly related to property rights

Ilia Murtazashvili

Yeah, the state building strategy in Afghanistan was essentially an imperialistic approach where the rulers would promise access to property in exchange for political support and in Afghanistan, historically, that meant providing property access rights to nomads in Hazara lands and beyond that there were all sorts of things that Abdur Rahman did to increase the freedom to engage in this genocide against Hazaras which was, you know, to redefine Hazaras as infidels, so Islamic prohibitions against taking land from another Muslim no longer apply. And that was a way to recruit soldiers and so the approach to state building was always based on land in a lot of ways.

And the institutions that were set up giving nomads essentially rights to return to land that is occupied by other people created a lot of problems later on, because decades later, a century later, people oftentimes will claim historical rights to use land and they’ll show up when they haven’t been there for a long time leading to conflict. And before the Taliban retook the country, there were situations where Taliban would go into communities and set up courts. because the property system was based on, you know, trying to give supporters of the regime rights. Those rights would come into conflict with actual use of land. The Taliban then would promise to resolve these disputes and people would say, ‘Well, all right, well maybe the Taliban, their courts, they’re providing a public good resolving disputes.’

But in our book we say the Taliban, they might resolve disputes locally, but they’re not a long run solution. And in the current context you have to ask if the Taliban, maybe resolved some disputes locally. They had their courts. Maybe that was something that people found acceptable. But now when they’re in charge of the whole country, there’s no constraint on them. What’s to stop them from expropriating land? What’s to compel them to do things, you know, in a way that is actually going to benefit people? And why would you expect the Taliban then or now to honestly adjudicate disputes when it involves Pashtuns and non-Pashtuns who historically have been in conflict over land because of this exploitative expropriated system that has deep historical roots.


When we started, we laid out three different institutions and kind of gave the impression that that’s just uniform the case all throughout Afghanistan. But the country is incredibly large and incredibly diverse and one of the points in a lot of Jen’s research in particular is the idea that there’s almost an informal federalism where people are governing their local communities differently from one another. How much diversity is there between different areas in terms of these different institutions?

Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili

So, that was one of the things that really surprised me is that, so, of course, there’s diversity. There’s diversity in norms just as there is in any country. The United States, there’s huge, you know, vastly different norms from region to region. But what I found that surprised me was the uniformity of these institutions across villages. They all have different names. They’ll have different titles. But this is a controversial statement among many Afghans I know, but a lot of Afghans make much of the ethnic differences and the Pashtun is this and a Pashtun has Pashtunwali and a non-Pashtun doesn’t have Pashtunwali and Pashtuns do things so differently.

When I got to villages, I actually found that they do things in a very similar manner. They all have these institutions. The power among them is separated. And I want to say that it’s not just the separation of powers between these institutions that yields this effective outcome really, because what we’re trying to explain here isn’t just why, like, okay, there’s this customary governance and it works and it’s effective. The mechanism why it works is because the power is separated among these three bodies. But not just that. There are checks and balances among them. And these checks and balances is what yields accountability. And that’s what the state doesn’t have is that accountability. And it’s that check among the different bodies that creates that.

And so, what I found is that most villages will have these different bodies. Among Afghan ethnic groups what they’re called varies. What they look like varies and the norms among those institutions varies. So, what would be a norm of inheritance in one part of the country versus another is sometimes different. Even though Islam is constant, how those laws are interpreted is quite different. What is a source of dispute is going to be different. What issues people care about are going to be different. But what surprised me is this kind of uniformity across communities in that there was an expectation that there are separated powers and among these separated bodies there are checks and balances among them. This was really striking to me.


So, would do you call traditional Afghan societies democratic or proto-democratic? How would you explain them?

Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili

Who needs the word democracy? I call them participatory. So, people can participate and I think that’s the most important thing rather than democracy or non-democracy, if the people can participate and that they’re accountable. And that’s really what matters. Isn’t that what matters for democracy? Right? So, they’re participatory. Do they look like democracy in sort of the American version of it, the Jeffersonian version? No, absolutely not. But they are legitimate and they were seen as much more legitimate than the democracy imposed by the state which never really had strong roots in society.

And you know, this is something I do hope your listeners walk away with is that it wasn’t because Afghan social norms don’t support democracy. They do. And Afghans understood darn well what they were supposed to have. But they never even got the minimum of what they were promised in the constitution. It wasn’t that democracy failed. It was, actually number one, it was never tried. It was never, implemented the way that it was promised. So, you know, there were supposed to be district council elections. They were never held. There were supposed to be elections for mayors. They were never held. There were elections for provincial councils, but those provincial councils had no power. So, like they had no oversight over governors, over provincials. So, why would you elect these people?

There was an elected parliament. People elected that. The parliament was actually one of the, you know, success stories, I think, of Afghanistan, but the parliament had very, very weak power over this very strong president. And the presidential elections were a mess and highly, highly, very, very corrupt. So, people really lost trust in those institutions and the ability of the government to protect those elections. So, democracy never was really tried in Afghanistan. I hate to say it. I don’t want to sound like those, ‘communism was never really tried,’ but we should know that many of the constitution – I actually wrote a paper on this. It was called “Democracy Denied.” And most of democracy that was promised in the constitution was never ever implemented.


So, when we look at Afghanistan, when we examine Afghanistan and their local forms of governance in terms of land and property rights and everything else, is this distinctive just to Afghanistan or does this actually offer a window into some of the forms of governance and some of the governance structures that may exist in other societies, especially less developed more traditional societies?

Ilia Murtazashvili

You know, I think a lot of what you see in Afghanistan you find in many other contexts and it requires us to go in and look at how property is governed to really focus on the local context. And when we do that, I think you’ll see some general themes. People tend to figure out if they’re left to their own devices what kind of property regime is most appropriate for them. And I think people oftentimes can benefit from a government at some point stepping in to enforce property rights. In every currently rich country, the government has the primary role in enforcing property rights.

But in order for that to happen, I mean, I think a lesson from Afghanistan that’s relevant in a lot of places is that you can’t just walk in and say, ‘Let’s look at people, if they don’t have legal title, let’s push legal titling upon them.’ If you don’t have a government in place with the capacity to do that, a court system where people can resolve disputes, a government that’s constrained, legal titling ends up being a hollow promise. And so, for us the lesson from Afghanistan, I think is really critical. It’s that legal titling which is oftentimes proposed as a solution to the challenges in developing countries is probably not going to work, because the political foundations for legal property rights are oftentimes not present.

And so, I think Afghanistan has a lot of lessons, but I think a lot of people looking at these contexts still tend to look to legal titling as some kind of a solution. It’s not a silver bullet and oftentimes it’s just a bad recommendation as far as policy goes. So, I think Afghanistan can tell us a lot, because, I think, you know, these challenges are things you’re going to find in a lot of different contexts.

Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili

It’s really, really difficult for outsiders to do this kind of work well. And the big mistake that people make when they’re going into places like Afghanistan, the international donor community or others, is that they assume there’s a tabula rasa. And then they assume that there is something called an ungoverned space. And there’s no such thing as an ungoverned space. We have to stop using that language. That language is extremely damaging. It leads to really, really bad policy outcomes. A territory may not be governed by a state, but that doesn’t mean it’s not governed by individuals and communities and rules.

And Ilia and I have four kids. And when those four kids get together, they make rules like you wouldn’t believe. And when those rules are violated, everybody knows about it. Who gets to sit where, when and how in the second seat of our minivan? There are definite rules about this. So, we can assume that if our young kids can make rules, adults can make rules and adults are really good at making rules and the big contribution that we’ve taken from Elinor Ostrom’s work, understanding rules and use in communities. But outsiders really don’t know how to do it well. They don’t know how to plug into these things. They don’t know how to work with them even if they have really good intentions, they come in and just screw up incentives.

So, my advice to the international donor community is to quit the obsession with communities. There’s a lot of obsessions with villages and communities. It’s where, you know, randomized controlled trials are obsessed. It’s where local democracy people love to work. It makes everybody feel good to work in communities, but maybe that’s where the least help is needed. It’s help bridging between communities and the state, understanding what kind of institutions might help bridge those things. Where do communities fail to work? At what level? At what scale? That’s where I think people need help.

I mean, you know, once again, we’re watching what’s happening, unfolding in Ukraine right now. And I’m already imagining the big community development programs. They’re going to come in to teach Ukrainians how to participate and do self-governance despite the fact that what we’re seeing in Ukraine is enormous resilience at the local level, enormous community solidarity, and people coming together and solving problems and doing so many things. And let’s take that into account. But unfortunately, this kind of agency, this kind of resilience is very, very hard for outsiders to understand. It’s messy. It doesn’t conform to our worldview. It doesn’t conform to our desire to build uniformity or, you know, what James Scott called our legibility, our desire to make things legible. But sometimes these things, which are not legible to us, may be more legitimate to others and it’s legitimacy. That’s the key.


Well, thank you so much for joining me, Jen and Ilia. When I first picked up your book, I didn’t know what to expect. I knew it was going to be about Afghanistan. And as I’m reading the introduction, it lays out a lot of theories about land and property rights. And I’ve read enough economics that I could follow along, but as I kept going through the pages, I just found it to be so different from so many other types of books and the way that we think about governance in non-Western societies appeals to me so much, because it really takes ourselves outside the box and makes us think, ‘How do these institutions really work?’ And so, I thought that your book was just fabulous. So, thank you so much for writing it. And thank you so much for joining me today.

Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili

Thank you so much.

Ilia Murtazashvili

Thank you so much. It was great to be here.

Key Links

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

Learn more about the Center for Governance and Markets

Follow Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili on Twitter @jmurtazashvili

Follow Ilia Murtazashvili on Twitter @IMurtazashvili

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