Vision of a State: Ultra-Federalism in Afghanistan

03/21/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

President Obama's provocative, considered decision to send another 30,000 troops to Afghanistan was a major moment in his presidency. By the president's own description, the deployment is a means to an end. However, since his speech, there has been too little discussion about what we hope to achieve after security is delivered in Afghanistan.

The fact of the matter is that, assuming we achieve broad-based security in the region and "degrade" the Taliban, any successful democratic system in Afghanistan will need to be sui generis -- in a class unto itself. This new goal should recognize the critical difference between a written constitution (a document) and a culture of constitutionalism (a way of life). As Thomas Jefferson once wrote of America, "Where is our republicanism to be found? Not in the Constitution, but merely in the spirit of the people." Afghanistan today possesses a perfectly serviceable written constitution, with a bicameral legislature, provincial government, an independent judiciary, and a strong executive branch. The question is whether it also possesses constitutionalism.

America's non-military assets -- including our aid budget and the Pentagon's "civilian surge" -- should make constitutionalism our ultimate goal in Afghanistan. To achieve constitutionalism in Afghanistan, we should aim at what might be called "ultra-federalism," following the model of the United States Constitution. In designing America's Constitution, the Framers built from our inheritance prior to 1787: thirteen states with existent, different constitutions; dramatic cultural, economic, and demographic contrasts; and legal and cultural misgivings about a strong central government. Over the decades, as America evolved -- as slavery was prohibited and the Civil War was fought, and as the New Deal swept through the country -- our constitutional values, like a vine, wrapped around the knottiest ethnic and historical features of our landscape.

The governing principle? We should avoid the naïve goal of perfecting a political system from scratch on the basis of abstract concepts; instead, only a pragmatic, syncretic approach -- sampling from different systems for what works best -- will achieve a resilient, native design that will be endorsed by the citizens it will govern.

"Ultra-federalism" in Afghanistan should mirror and embrace the country's unique and disparate elements. The new system should include established practices and political values that accept and incorporate the ethnic divisions between the country's major and minor ethnic groups: the Pashtuns and Tajiks (both historically Iranian), Hazaras, Uzbeks, Aimak, Turkmen, Baluch, Nuristani and other small groups. Constitutional law should embrace not only Pashto and Persian, the two official languages of the country, but Uzbek and Turkmen, which are spoken in the north, and, to the extent possible, the 70 other dialects throughout the country. As far as tribes go, the Pashtuns alone have at least seven tribes, the Durrani, Ghilzai, Jaji, Mangal, Safi, Mamund, and Mohmand, which generally distribute authority to elders through patrimony. Those power structures ought to be recognized and brought into the ultra-federalist system, just as the pre-existing American states were incorporated into the 1787 Constitution.

Afghanistan is 99 percent Muslim, and Afghanistan's constitution already embraces Shari'a law; however, an ultra-federalist culture would constantly seek to discover and bridge gaps between local systems for administering justice and the official machinery of the state courts. Finally, the ultra-federalist system ought to recognize and incorporate discrete issues certain tribes present for the federal government. For instance, the Ghilzai generally use a flat political structure that pointedly avoids a paramount chief. Such local decision-making processes should be welcomed into the ultra-federalist system.

Finally, as far as the familiar democratic goals of rule of law, recognition of human rights, and free and fair elections go, it is essential that we be practical in our attempts and circumspect about our goals. To trumpet absolutist aspirations for a "democratic" Afghanistan by implanting new institutions (such as nationwide elections) will result in charades like the flawed and corrupt election in August and the bankrupt run-off in November. Instead, we should establish reasonable benchmarks that aim for democratic participation (a process that can grow) instead of only participatory democracy (a binary outcome that sets us up to fail).

But ultra-federalism won't only be about accepting the givens; it should also be about pushing initiatives that will help constitutionalism take hold culturally. These include reducing Afghanistan's shameful illiteracy rate of 70 percent, so people can understand laws and participate politically; launching an all-out war on corruption, in part by nurturing an independent bar of trained, competent lawyers; and making militias and warlordism both unacceptable and illegal.

All of these efforts should be considered and adopted by Afghanis through a series of new local and national loya jirgas -- the traditional elder-driven, tribal-based, deliberative structure that approved Afghanistan's 2003 constitution.

The security earned through President Obama's new strategy needs a larger end: a stable Afghanistan that will, in turn, help make the world safer for America and our allies. The broader aim of ultra-federalism will help build a robust Afghan state that will withstand the Taliban and grow, eventually and on its own path, into a democracy Afghans can truly call their own.

This piece also appears at Progressive Fix..