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Ethnic Groups Must Share in the Pie

November 04, 2001|S. FREDERICK STARR | S. Frederick Starr is chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies

Even as bombs rain on Kabul and Kandahar, plans for a post-Taliban government in Afghanistan are advancing on every front. Some of these plans should be cause for concern.

Afghanistan is multiethnic. Pushtuns are the largest group and Tajiks a distant second, followed by Hazaras, Uzbeks and Turkmens. Any government that is to be legitimate must be organized to ensure fair representation for all. Most Afghans appreciate this and know that on this point, the Taliban's Pushtun leaders have failed miserably. Foreign diplomats scurrying to plan the new government have taken this need to heart.

During a recent trip to Tajikistan, German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer announced that the new government should be a federation. Washington also is abuzz with talk of federalism for Afghanistan. The notion of a federalized Afghanistan is not only wrongheaded but also dangerous.

To be sure, there are several benefits of federalism. In a nation of separate ethnic groups, a federal system can ensure voices for all. It can provide each group with a decisive say over local matters. And it can counterbalance a central government dominated by one group.

Federal systems fulfill all these functions in Germany, Canada, Switzerland and the United States. But the U.S. endured a bloody civil war before it achieved a sustainable balance between federal and state authority.

Germany did not adopt a federal system until it lost World War II; Switzerland's was hundreds of years in the making. Quebec is still testing the limits of Canadian federalism.

These systems were founded with the idea of placing limits on central authority. But in Afghanistan, the gravest dangers arise from excess centrifugal forces. More than anything, Afghanistan needs a functioning center.

Afghanistan's new government must be able to ensure that laws are enacted and implemented fairly. It must provide for security, including the interdiction of terrorists and drug traffickers. It must assure that criminals cannot take refuge by fleeing across internal boundaries.

And it must be able to ensure the smooth flow of trade--truck traffic--across the country, without which the economy will never improve. Finally, it must be capable of distributing foreign aid in a way that leaves no room for claims of ethnic favoritism.

These tasks will be rendered more difficult by a federal system. Will there be a right of secession? Will states have the power to levy their own taxes and duties on trade? How will interstate conflicts be adjudicated?

But such issues may never arise since a federal system is likely to die on the drawing board. Afghanistan's states will not exist until someone draws up a new set of boundaries. The existing provinces only vaguely reflect ethnic divisions.

As Afghanistan's Jeffersons and Madisons work on this problem, another will arise: Will the largest group, the Pushtuns, be divided into several smaller states to create a semblance of equity among the federal units? Even if Pushtuns agree to this, which is unlikely, who will draw the new lines?

Afghanistan needs a unitary or national government based on the existing 29 provinces, which often cross ethnic lines. The government would have responsibility for security, police, customs and all foreign relations vested firmly in the capital.

But Afghanistan does not need a bureaucratic system, let alone one like that of the former emirs and kings, dedicated mainly to extracting taxes. Firm limits must be placed on the central authority, especially on the power to tax.

Afghanistan's unitary system must accord a substantial role to local initiative. At the least, it should follow the example of nearby Kyrgyzstan and allow for the local election of governors--if not immediately, then after a brief transition. And the lowest level of the system should be grounded not in bureaucracy but in the existing institutions of self-government at the village, tribal and district levels.

Through two decades of war and chaos, institutions of local self-government have continued to function in many areas. Whether urban mahallas or guzars--traditional communal governing groups--kinship groups or tribes, these always have been the primary focus of loyalty and identity. As the Afghan-born Indiana University scholar M. Nazif Shahrani has pointed out, these are the essential units in Afghan society and certainly the only ones that enjoy widespread credibility.

At some future point it might be possible for Afghanistan to move to a federal system. To attempt it today would be to turn the country into a highly flammable political science laboratory. In any event, the only government that will succeed in Afghanistan is one planned by Afghans, not from abroad.

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