Disguised federalism and the myth of “peace provinces” in Afghanistan


By Zarlasht Safy Sarsam

Hizbe Islami leader’s proposal to grant local autonomy to the Taliban in a few provinces in hopes of reconciliation with the militant group has sparked a fierce debate regarding federalism in Afghanistan. Gulbudin Hekmatyar pitched the idea of safe areas or “peace provinces” to woo the Taliban to the negotiating table.

The idea was supported by Abdul Latif Pedram leader of National Congress Party of Afghanistan, a fierce critic of Gulbudin Hekmatyar and rival, and a vocal advocate of federalism in Afghanistan. Others strongly objected to the idea and stamped it as another deceit. Former intelligence chief of Afghanistan, Amrullah Saleh compared the deal with the Gandomak treaty which was the reason that Afghanistan lost its fertile ground to the British Raj back in the nineteenth century. The concept of “peace provinces” however was for the first time suggested by Dr. Najibullah back in the 1990’s, which ironically enough was opposed fiercely by Mr. Hekmatyar then.

Former President Hamid Karzai admitted during the Loya Jirga assembly of 2014 that the Taliban had asked him to deliver some provinces.  “I am willing to offer you the entire country Afghanistan but never a piece of it” was the president’s response. Reprisal of the same proposal by Hekmatyar disguised under the impression of “peace provinces” could be confirmation of Taliban’s aims to carve out their own territory in a land they contest with spectacular attacks but don’t really control.

Dividing Afghanistan between the national government and a militant group fighting to reclaim their lost glory is a recipe for disaster. This distribution of sovereignty poses a challenge and dangerous risk in a war torn Afghanistan. Failure and deviation of federalism from its basic principles can cause secessionist movements and or ethno-nationalist conflicts. Examples are the catastrophic cases of Balochistan and The Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in Pakistan.

The idea of safe provinces renewed the aspirations of fringe movements that have been calling for federal system to allow them autonomy over their respective regions. But in order to implement federal system, a healthy political culture with civic norms is prerequisite. In a political environment ripe with tyrant governors, religious militancy, drug trafficking mafia, feudal commanders and ethno-national elements, provincial autonomy will allow spaces to be exploited further for vested interests, the role of government would gradually decrease and the system will be doomed to fail.

Also the correct articulation of federal structure is a challenge. Vagaries in Taliban policies are reasons to rethink federalism. It is not clear which federal structure the Taliban are willing to implement. Who defines the borders of these regions? Will there be an autonomous jurisdiction mechanism in these areas or a central rule? A doomed scenario will be a FATA-like political design where the central government will not have any influence on the governance, political and judiciary structure of the region. Political parties were banned in FATA and Islamist candidates were allowed to campaign through mosques and madrassa’s which resulted in power guarantee to insurgent militia’s. The same approach in Afghanistan will be disastrous. Also the part “Peace provinces will remain part of Afghanistan even if Afghan Army troops withdrew from them” generates concern and gives the impression that the Taliban are willing to set up a FATA-like structure in southern Afghanistan.

This parallel governance structure is very much similar to the deal between Islamabad and FATA which resulted in refuge of hundred thousand Pashtuns from the FATA after the march of 80000 Pakistani troops caused severe sociopolitical ramifications of power.

Yet the world is not ready for further ramifications of already existing nations. We witness union of countries as in European union and Scottish referendum which chooses unity rather than division. The case of Yoguslavia where authority of federal regime was gradually weakened to a point that it disintegrated after experiencing 48 years of federalism is often used as a good example of creating new nations. Yet according to Professor Thomas Barfield of Boston University, the dilemma that the new nations face in these newborn countries is that new minorities will rise up undoing the purpose of whole process of state forming. Another issue is economic independence of the newly formed countries, Kurdistan is one of those countries that despite declared independent receives 12.6 percent of Iraq’s federal budget.

Yet even economic independence is not a guarantee for survival of a nation. I noticed that on the first of October last year, when I visited Barcelona city to catch a friendly football match between Las Palmas and my son’s favorite FC Barcelona. While my son was excited to meet his biggest idol Lionel Messi, Barcelona city was voting for its independence. Polling stations were booming. Flags of Catalonia were hoisted from every window in the city. Even popular football stars like Gerard Pique showed up voting “yes” and expressed his support for Catalonian referendum that was declared illegal by Spain’s government. Madrid had sent extra riot police to the peripheral state Catalonia to stop the voting. Journalists were banned to enter the airport.

Yet with valid tickets in our hands and disappointed faces we were left behind the stadium walls together with 60,000 supporters. FC Barcelona played La Liga match behind closed doors in an empty stadium after asking Spain’s league to postpone the match. Las Palmas was insisting to play with Spanish national outfits as a protest against referendum and Barcelona was against it. This comprehends the significance of referendum in the context of national issues regarding Catalonian independence.

The poll ended and the results were astonishing. Two point two million Catalans out of 7.5 million took part in the referendum and 90 percent of them voted for independence from Spain. A massive crowd celebrated the victory and the city of Barcelona was clearly celebrating their freedom. I tried to comfort my 8 years old son by saying that perhaps he witnessed a momentous event in the history with Catalans rather than meeting Messi. It was the birth of a new nation. But I was wrong. The truth was more complicated than I thought. Fifty thousands Spanish citizens protested the next day against the referendum proving that economic strength, historic unjust or even democratic will of a country is sometimes not important. No other nation supported independence of Catalonia and the world is not ready for a more fragmented version of itself, that includes Afghanistan.

Zarlasht Safy Sarsam is a biomedical research analyst by profession, a woman rights activist and a writer based in the Netherlands. She writes mostly about woman rights, historical issues and current affairs. 




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