AAS Annual Meeting

South Asia Session 568

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Session 568: Bureaucracy at Glance in Afghanistan: A Historical Perspective

Organizer and Chair: Alessandro Monsutti, , Switzerland

Discussant: Thomas J. Barfield, Boston University, USA

The series of conflicts that has been tearing Afghanistan apart since 1978 has caused the collapse of the state. The international community has devoted billions of dollars to rebuild the country and its infrastructure. Such an intervention has been guided by diverging and evolving assessments of the historic role of the Afghan state and the necessity to re-empower it to balance the influence of local commanders and warlords. Classic Weberian social sciences conceive the development of bureaucracy as a process taking place in a world of nation states that leads to more rational and efficient forms of organization. By contrast, contemporary scholarship is increasingly acknowledging the existence of overlapping and often competing sovereignties within and across national borders that involve benevolence and welfare programs as much as coercion and repression. The contemporary world is characterized by a vast bureaucratic transnational system, which includes the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, United Nations agencies, and a multitude of non-governmental organizations often structured in loose networks spanning various countries. By their action, they complement and sometimes challenge more familiar forms of territorialization and participate in a reconfiguration of governmentality between states and non-state entities. Such processes are particularly visible in Afghanistan. Adopting a historical perspective comparing the current situation with the colonial period, the objective of the panel is to explore the various forms mundane bureaucratic practices have taken in Afghanistan to highlight continuity and rupture in the way the population may experience the exercise of sovereignty.

The British Subsidization of the Afghan State, and Its Legacy
Shah Mahmoud Hanifi, James Madison University, USA

The Durrani Empire was originally organized around the economic engagement of North India. The bureaucracy established by Ahmad Shah (r. 1747-1772) and expanded by Timur Shah (r. 1772-1793) was transformed as the Durrani polity lost possessions in Hindustan to the emerging Sikh and British states in the early nineteenth century. The British subsidization of Afghan rulers that began with Dost Mohammad’s second tenure (1842-1863) after the First Anglo-Afghan War marked a significant departure from fiscal precedents. The amount and consequence of these colonial subsidies increased during the remainder of the century, reaching their peak during the reign of Abd al-Rahman (1880-1901). The general focus of this presentation will be the wide-ranging effect of the British subsidies on the bureaucratic organization of the Durrani Afghan state. The body of the paper will address three areas of bureaucratic development resulting from the British subsidization of the Afghan state, namely: a) domestic taxation and foreign trade; b) military production; and c) local surveillance and foreign intelligence. British subsidies during the nineteenth century generated a bureaucratic framework that formatted state-society interaction in Afghanistan and configured the country’s relationships with major global powers that remained in tact well into the twentieth century. The conclusion of this paper will briefly consider the replication of and deviation from colonially established state bureaucratic practice by sub-state (local khans) and non-state (NGOs), and anti-state (resistance groups and parties) elements and institutions resulting from new forms of external subsidization during the decades before and after 2001.

The Process of Centralization of Afghan Bureaucracy
Amin Tarzi, Independent Scholar, USA

It is often difficult, if not unwise, to attempt to assign definite moments for the beginning or completion of the evolution of a state’s bureaucratic structures. In the case of Afghanistan, there is ample documentary evidence to show that the rudimentary arrangements that existed in the first half of the nineteenth century, and was somewhat elaborated immediately prior to the Second Anglo-Afghan war of 1879-80, saw significant modification and expansion in the 1880s and 1890s, during the reign of Amir ‘Abd al-Rahman Khan. Most historians believe that the reign of ‘Abd al-Rahman (1880-1901) marks the beginning of the modern Afghan state. It was at this time that the country’s international boundaries were drawn and fixed by international treaties, central authority was established over the entire country using a loyal military force, and the law of the land became codified and was applied uniformly in newly established Afghan courts. In my talk, I will discuss the amir’s process of centralizing the government bureaucracy through his organization and systematization of the judicial process. I will conclude with a summary of the role of law and its implementation through the evolution of a universal judicial administration in Afghanistan under ‘Abd al-Rahman and will assert that the creation and development of bureaucratic structures and institutions, rather than personalities – no matter how charismatic or pathological – are what determined the apparent effectiveness of the amir in taming the territory placed in his charge in 1880.

State-Building in Afghanistan: A Critical Perspective
David B. Edwards, Williams College, USA

This paper seeks to pinpoint key dynamics in the development of the state in Afghanistan over the last century. The importance of understanding the process of state formation is particularly pressing because of the tendency among Western policymakers to assume that the state model with which they are familiar is the only possible model that might exist. Before you can fix a “failed state,” however, you have to understand what a state is, where it comes from, and how it is viewed by the people who come under its sway and by those who attempt to align themselves with it. Until the second half of the nineteenth century in the region comprising present-day Afghanistan, instead of states one found a shifting landscape of expanding and contracting kingdoms and khanates, mobile tribes, and predatory tribal confederacies. The various states that have come into the existence since that time have had to build a state on this unfavorable ground. In this paper, I will consider the primary political/ideological, military, and administrative strategies by which Afghan states have attempted to expand and consolidate their power. Expanding on Max Weber’s examination of patrimonial and bureaucratic forms of political organization, as well as Fredrik Barth’s analysis of state formation in the Swat valley of present-day Pakistan, I will attempt to ascertain the key variables in the success and failure of past attempts at consolidating state rule and consider the present efforts by the Karzai administration in relation to those variables.

Applying UNHCR’s Mandate in Afghanistan: Situations of Friction
Giulia Scalettaris, EHESS, France

Since 2002, the UNHCR has been leading a major operation of repatriation into Afghanistan and a program for the reintegration of returnees. Through its bureaucracy and action on the ground, UNHCR promotes criteria of legibility and distribution of resources that draw on its international mandate, as well as a set of procedures to apply them. These criteria and procedures are conveyed not only through the reintegration programs funded and supervised by UNHCR and implemented by dozens of international and national NGOs, but also through national policies. Even though the returnee policy sector is formally overseen by the Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation, UNHCR plays a major role in formulating its policies. Yet, despite the legitimacy enjoyed by the agency among the international players operating in Afghanistan and its authority resulting from its bureaucratic presence and the control of considerable funding, the actual spreading of the criteria and procedures promoted by UNHCR is far from being unproblematic and uncontested. Both at central and at local level, their “vernacularisation” entails processes of translation, appropriation, redefinition, and resistance that often generate situations of friction. Drawing on ethnographic material, the paper will focus on some of these situations of friction. These moments reveal that UNHCR participates in a multilayered configuration of power relations, where a plurality of state, non-state, national and transnational actors interact, and where different ways of exerting rule coexist and sometimes conflict.

Post 9/11 Institutional Building in Afghanistan: The Case of the National Security Council
Daoud Yaqub, Princeton University, USA

Subsequent to the 5 December 2001 Bonn Agreement, the new interim Afghan authorities were presented, from the start, with two competing strategic security challenges which had to be overlaid upon the macro challenge of state building. The first and immediate security challenge was for the US-led coalition to win the “war on terror”. The second challenge was to rationalize the various non-statutory Afghan militia groups. The new interim authorities in Kabul had no working bureaucracy and were besieged on every side by a myriad of security, political, economic, and development problems. How could they, with so little initial capacity and resources of their own, establish and retain ownership of the reconstruction process such that what was created was compatible with Afghan norms and would be sustainable for the future? One of the institutional responses was the creation of the Office of the National Security Council (NSC) in June 2002. The primary function of the NSC is to advise the President with respect to the national security so as to enable the military services and the other departments and agencies of the government to cooperate more effectively in matters involving national security. This paper will examine the successes and shortcomings of the Afghan authorities with respect to this endeavor. Given the significant involvement of Afghanistan’s international partners in this arena, no study can be accurate without also evaluating the action of the international community in the rebuilding of national institutions.

The Ties that Bind: The Formal-Informal Nexus in Rural Afghanistan
Jennifer C. Murtazashvili, University of Pittsburgh, USA

This paper explores the interaction between individuals and formal organizations of local government in rural Afghanistan. It begins with the following puzzle: despite pervasive state weakness of central and local bureaucracy in Afghanistan, people line up daily to meet with local government officials at the lowest level of formal government. Why do individuals spend costly time often traversing difficult terrain and sustaining long waits outside government offices to meet with officials if the state is so weak and ineffective? What do individuals expect from these interactions? What kind of rules governs these interactions? Finally, how do these interactions affect citizen evaluation of the quality of local government? Social scientists have recently rediscovered the resilience of individuals to provide order without the aid of the state or formal rules through decentralized norms. Such decentralized coordination mechanisms, however, rarely present a role for the state. This paper, based on field observations and interviews in sixteen districts across rural Afghanistan, argues that long lines are actually a measure of confidence in local government. If government officials are partial, citizens will not seek their judgment. Individuals approach local government officials to resolve disputes they have been unable to resolve on their own. In turn, citizens expect government officials to use informal customary law – not formal state law – to resolve disputes. Thus, the state behaves more like a customary actor than an agent of the state. This paper demonstrates that government in Afghanistan is thus weakest not at the periphery, but at its center.