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Afghanistan Governed by a Federal System with Autonomous Regions

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Afghanistan Governed by a Federal System with Autonomous Regions: A Path to Success?

by Major Bryan Carroll and Dr. David A. Anderson

Download the full article: Afghanistan Governed by a Federal System with Autonomous Regions

It is debatable whether Afghanistan meets most accepted definitions of a nation-state. Afghanistan has historically been governed by local and tribal leaders with short-lived attempts at a strong central unitary government. Whenever there has been a strong central government, it has relatively quickly been removed from power. The people of Afghanistan resent strong central government and demonstrate this through their repeated revolts and coups that follow any bold government intrusion in their tribal lives. This historical trend raises questions about the United States' current efforts to strengthen Afghanistan's central government. We assert that Afghanistan should not be governed by a central government but by a federal system with strongly autonomous areas.

We begin with a brief background discussion of the recent history of Afghani governance and ethnic demographics. The second section defines a federal system and an autonomous region, detailing their respective strengths and weaknesses as a form of governance. The third section presents case studies of the countries of Belgium, Spain, and the autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq. Both Belgium and Spain are examples of nation-states that are made-up of strong ethnic groups in which a federal system with autonomous regions has helped to stabilize. The region of Kurdistan within Iraq is an example of a country using an autonomous region to decrease ethnic violence and separatist movements with a positive outcome. The fourth section analyzes the country case studies focusing upon the applied strengths exhibited by these chosen political systems in relation to four prescribed assessment criteria. The study then looks for historical parallels between these federal systems of government with autonomous region(s) and the current situation in Afghanistan, as well as the current challenges facing Afghanistan that could be alleviated utilizing this alternative political system.

Download the full article: Afghanistan Governed by a Federal System with Autonomous Regions

Major Bryan Carroll is a United States Army Infantry Officer and graduate of the School of Advanced Military Studies with a Masters of Military Art and Science in Theater Operations. His undergraduate degrees in History and International Relations are from Norwich Military University. He has deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan, and has served within Airborne and Stryker Infantry assignments. He is currently preparing to return to Afghanistan.

Dr. David A. Anderson is a retired U.S. Marine Corps officer. He is now a professor of Strategic Studies at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where he teaches strategic and operational studies, as well as economics. He is also an adjunct professor for Webster University, Missouri, where he teaches various international relations courses. He has published numerous articles on military and international relations related topics.

About the Author(s)


Faha (not verified)

Wed, 12/23/2009 - 6:28pm

Excellent article. This should be required reading for all in the Obama administration and the military who will be making decisions on future Afghan strategy. However, I believe the concept of autonomous regions should be taken one step further. Afghanistan is a failed state by any definition of the phrase with more than 30 years of continuous warfare to prove so. Any central government would still be subject to infighting and intrigue among the various ethnic groups, factions and warlords. There is no guarantee that any central government would respect the autonomy of the independent regions. What is to prevent discrimination or ethnic cleansing by the dominant ethnic group within an autonomous region directed against minority groups? Afghanistan is not a cohesive nation. We in the United States have difficulty comprehending this reality due to the melting pot nature of our nation. The nation of Afghanistan, a failed state, should be abolished. The Tajik, Uzbek and Turkmen regions of Afghanistan should be annexed and incorporated into the adjoining nations of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. These 3 ethnic groups account for almost half the population of Afghanistan and by removing these regions from Afghanistan and incorporating them into their adjoining ethnic states the war will immediately and permanently end for these peoples. The governments of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have all successfully defeated Islamic insurgencies within their borders since they obtained independence in 1992. Independent nations should also be created for the Aimaq, Hazara and Nuristani people. Why should we spend hundreds of billions of dollars, thousands of lives of U.S soldiers, and unknown number of years to attempt to create a central government and army in Afghanistan? Would the soldiers of the Afghan army be loyal to the central government or their tribe and ethnic group? History says the latter, which is a recipe for recurrent and endless war. We should rather be focused on building up the militaries of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and the independent nations for the Aimaq, Hazara and Nuristani people so that these nations will be able to deter any aggression by the Taliban/Al Qaeda forces that originate from the Pashtuns.
It is true that there is some admixture among the different ethnic groups within Afghanistan, especially in Kabul. However, strong financial incentives and safe relocation by the U.S. military should be given to those living within the "wrong" nation. The annual GDP of Afghanistan is only $18 billion. At least this amount should be allocated to relocating those who need to be relocated. Goldman Sachs will be dispensing $23 billion to its executives this year. Surely we could allocate at least that amount to relocation alone. For the Afghans who would need to be relocated, the amount would exceed several years income for most Afghan families.
As for the Pashtuns, we would still face some difficult choices. Pakistan could annex and police the Pashtun regions of Afghanistan. However, we need to find out first what the Pashtun people of Pakistan and Afghanistan desire, in order to prevent a scenario where we need to intervene in Pakistan if that country becomes more unstable.

Wouldn't Switzerland make a better example to cite? Given that Switzerland was traditionally made up of various warrior tribes divided by geography, this model seems to be closer to the Afghan one.

In deference to Afghans who reject western models, perhaps feudal Japan, with whom Afghans might be able to relate, might serve as a better example.....the Tokugawa shogunate. This would mean accepting an authoritarian central government. But we do have a history of acceptance as long as they were generally pro-Western.

Are either of these worth considering?

Steve the Planner

Thu, 12/17/2009 - 1:51pm

Clearly, a lot of effort went into this work, but there are two important over-simplifications.

First, the two euro examples (Spain and Belgium), actually took place over hundreds of years, during which each territory experienced times of substantial occupation, world wars and treaties overseen by bigger outside forces. The write-up skips over important events and drivers that, to a great extent, left Belgium and Spain less than fully empowered for great periods of that time, and left the results (to work it out amongst yourselves) a fait accompli of the big powers and their interests.

Second, the primary examples from the Arab world, including Afghanistan, are typically ones of strong rulers acting either on a national or regional basis, and with substantial cross-border affiliations with either comparable cohorts or big powers.

Regardless of British ulterior motives in and around the settlement of WWI, the Kurds were not, after WWI, ready and able to establish and operational government within a clearly defined historical homeland. Fighting inside, outside, and all around. Skipping through the Barzan period, and the Azerbaijan period (the Kurdish Communist Republic), and the Kurds' extensive involvements for/against Iran over a long and continuing period does not help. The newly emerging relationship between Turkey and KRG is a positive work-in-progress, as is the concept of KRG as a settled and productive "autonomous region."

The complexity of Afghan inter-cultural conflicts predates 1919, and, to a great extent, is heavily influenced by the events surrounding the end of British Colonialism and the consequent establishment of Pakistan---another key issue as yet unresolved.

Except through the Franco Period, neither Spain nor Belgium appear to have gone through the national, regional warlord periods applicable to the current set in Afghanistan, nor, to a great extent was there such deep and, in part, geographically, cultural, linguistic and historically ingrained divisions amongst its internal populations as is evident in Afghanistan.

In Iraq, we fostered and pushed a provincially based federalism on a country with an older Ottoman tradition of little to no effective central governance, except as to the big things. Iraq only prospered with a strong central control of the rivers, trade and markets, and protection from outside attacks; internal; conflict was left to fester as long as it did not interfere with central government control. The old Ottoman empire, which was a top-down, local petition-based government, functioned OK for centuries until its waning "sickly" years.

Iraq, even today, continues into the next chapters of developing its own self-governance structure, but it, too, is a work in progress, with few final lessons to be learned, or applied, to Afghanistan. The final KRG issue is open to the future.

The great Batimore sage, H. L. Mencken, posited that for every complex problem, there is a perfectly simple solution that is entirely wrong.

If Loya Jirgas have, over time, served as a focused means by which the peoples in a geography worked out their differences---however imperfectly--- why is that not the key starting point to define the organizational structure on which it's future will be grounded?

Flying Carpet

Thu, 12/17/2009 - 11:35am

The Afghan population lives rather mixed, specially when one considers the Pashtun tribes and the urban areas. So geographical autonomy for each ethnic group will be rather difficult and not always possible.

I had hoped that the article would address these practical difficulties, but it doesn't.

Yet I believe in democracy coming from below. It is THE way that we can have an edge over the Taliban.