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No Statesman’s Land: Afghanistan’s Political Leadership Dilemma – Analysis

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Afghanistan is yet at another cross road of history and in dire need of political leadership and statesmanship to steer it in a post US and NATO engagement era. The history of Afghanistan is characterised by conquerors and conquests. Afghans are deemed great warriors, entrepreneurs, writers and poets but no statesmen to pull out a divided nation at times of crisis towards an a unifying prosperous state. This is primarily due to the dominance of politics of emotions than calculation, ethnic diversity, harsh geography, economic dependency and above all a predatory neighborhood. The art of statecraft which involves formulation of a vision, mobilization capacity, farsight, patience and consensus building with cold calculations across the board within the social fabric of the Afghan society has been missing for years from the country’s political landscape and modern history.

Afghan leaders have consistently failed to agree on national interests which are deemed as redlines for state apparatus and political actors to cross. On the other hand, the absence of a professional apolitical civil service to remain neutral and professional for delivering political agenda of various parties has been one of the major drivers of state failure in the country.

Over the years, Afghan leaders have consistently failed to generate a vision for the country with a stable political narrative, an indigenous economy and a system to produce a consensus over it. They have been confined to ethnic vote banking and lacked the necessary national appeal and mobilization capacity to rally Afghans behind a vision.

King Amanullah Khan (1919-1929) was the first to generate a vision and try to modernize the country but failed due to hastiness of his reforms, lack of financial resources and underestimation of the strength of the deep rooted traditions which has bound this country for centuries. He died in exile with that vision after a short span of his reign.

On the other hand – the longest serving Afghan head of state, King Zahir Shah (1933-1973), who run the country less of a state but more of a conglomerate of fiefdoms on the payroll of Central Government in Kabul. He had a Jirga centric governance style and believed more on the tribal chiefs than his own institutions. He built a social contract through local tribal elders and religious leaders with the people and they delivered on the taxes, rule of law and obedience he expected from the citizens. Though in his 40 years reign – he never portrayed a vision for the country that was primarily due to his young age assuming the throne after the assassination of his father, King Nader Khan, and the politics of uncles who were his Prime Ministers.

Except President Daud Khan (1973-1978), the subsequent set of Afghan leaders had short lived tenures and almost all of them met violent death, the latest casualty was late President Burhanuddin Rabbani blown up by a Taliban peace envoy. They were all too busy preserving their political power on the face of coups and regional proxies inside the state apparatus.

President Daud is fondly remembered for his 5 year plans and outreach to the west and the Islamic world but he failed miserably in his great rebalancing act and neglected the growing strength of communists, backed by Moscow, within his security forces. He is seen as the single Afghan president who formulated a vision for the country through his five year plans and tried to mobilize all the political, economic and social potential resources of the country in the direction of modernization and his vision.

Rarely have any Afghan politician in the modern times presented a statesman’s vision for the country or been transformed from an ethnic leader or warlord to that of a politician and eventually a statesman, almost none. Like all every all politics in Afghanistan is local. The geography of thought and the mind of the many Afghan political leaders does not extend beyond their district, province, region or ethnic group and even then they lack a vision and program for their district, province, region or ethnicity. It is the politics of divide and rule and the politics of fear.

Afghan politics still remain an ethnic, patronage system with a heavily clientelistic approach in view of the declining foreign aid. For years to come – “Money” and the “Barrel of the Gun” will set the agenda for the grassroots politics of the country. It is a sad reality that should be managed but cannot be avoided in view of the ground realities and absence of monopoly of violence in the hands of state.

Post Soviet Union invasion, Afghan leaders have been systematically targeted and killed almost based on an organized plan by various proxy factions all over the country in order to replace them with a more extremists and younger generation of tribal and religious fanatics. This has wreaked havoc in the social fabric of the country and continue to this day. Many of the tolerant, national and moderate Afghan elders and leaders are now replaced by younger extremist generation of Afghan elites.

Cross ethnic appeal and financial resources constraint have handicapped the Afghan leaders to generate vision and political programs for the country because they won’t be able to deliver on it. Every Afghan leader even at the community level will have to think twice before promising a new scheme. Afghan politics and leaders are still stuck in vote bank ethnic politics and for them to transition into more cross ethnic programmatic politics will be hard and long time to come.

Afghanistan and its leaders were once known for their moderate version of Islam and toleration towards other religious such as Judaism, Hindus and Sikhs whose temples and synagogues are still present to this day across the country.

Today a new generation of Afghan leaders have emerged which would require time and space in order to break out from the prisons of their ethnic politics and find a cross ethnic nationwide appeal. It has always been the cross ethnic mobilization capacity problem for the Afghan leaders to win the trust of all ethnic groups and find a national appeal.

Even today some of the ethnic leaders lack the necessary mobilization capacity of the Afghans for a variety of reasons chief among them the question of financial resources, trust deficit due to years of war and ethnic profiteering by warlords The new generation of Afghan leaders need to break with the past and show patience, perseverance and farsight in dealing with modern challenges of Afghanistan at home and abroad. Afghanistan needs new breed of leaders with a new vision and skill set to transform the country. The future of Afghanistan will depend on the vision, mission and values of these newly emerging leaders for the country and history awaits to judge them.

*Tamim Asey is the former Afghan Deputy Minister of Defense and Director General at the Afghan National Security Council. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D in Security studies in London. He can be reached via twitter @tamimasey and Facebook @Tamim Asey.

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