Dysfunctional Centralization and Growing Fragility under Taliban Rule

The Center for Governance and markets hosted “Dysfunctional Centralization and Growing Fragility under Taliban Rule” on October 12 as part of the center’s ongoing “Voices from Afghanistan” seminar series. The event featured Sayed Madadi, who currently serves as a Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy and a resident scholar with the Middle East Institute’s Afghanistan and Pakistan Studies program. Madadi formerly worked for the Afghanistan State Ministry for Peace as Director of Foreign Relations and participated in Afghanistan Peace Negotiations with the Taliban in Doha. 

Since the collapse of the Afghan government and takeover of the country by the Taliban in August 2021, the country has descended further into political instability, human rights violations, and extreme poverty. Madadi argues that a key contributing factor to the crisis is a dysfunctional structure of governance centered around Kabul that became even more paralyzed and unresponsive under Taliban control. 

“The Taliban’s return to power was a huge factor in how we’re seeing the country struggling with all of these political and economic challenges, but the root cause of these challenges were there before,” Madadi said. “And one of those factors — if not the only or the biggest one, one of the key ones — was the centralization of political power and economic planning in Kabul.” 

Political and economic power in Afghanistan is heavily concentrated in Kabul, Madadi explained, to the detriment of the rest of the country. He said that once Kabul became a center of activity in Afghanistan in the 1880s, wealthy Afghans began to migrate to Kabul to be near political and economic opportunities. Additionally, Afghans seeking to increase their wealth left their home provinces and moved to Kabul.  

“Over time, basically, Kabul grew at the expense of the rest of the country,” said Madadi. “Human resources came to Kabul. The best and brightest of the country had to come to Kabul for education, for job opportunities, and most of them never went back to their provinces.” 

Kabul eventually became the center of all economic and political activity in Afghanistan and the seat of the Afghan government. Other provinces paid taxes to Kabul, where corrupt economic and political structures had little commitment or political will to invest that money back into the well-being and infrastructure of those provinces. This created a system where, if a province generated more revenue, they made themselves poorer. 

This intense centralization of funds and resources, in addition to the problems it created in the governance of Afghanistan before 2021, contributed massively to the instantaneous collapse of the country to the Taliban when Kabul fell. 

“In some sense, there was no economy outside of Kabul to speak about. Everything outside of Kabul was an extension of the economic sphere we had created in Kabul,” Madadi said. “So when Kabul collapsed, it was almost like you just untied the very top knot of a picnic tent. So everything else will fall apart.” 

Madadi also discussed the misuse of humanitarian aid in Afghanistan and how the international community must rethink the fundamental framework of how aid is provided in countries like Afghanistan. The question neglected for years regarding aid and restructuring in Afghanistan, Madadi explained, was whether or not funds “created capacity for sustainable value generation in the long term, or does it only feed people for today or the next day?” The aid currently being provided, he said, is the latter. The political crisis is to blame for the humanitarian crisis, according to Madadi. The Taliban regime is isolated from the world, and without international trade, the economy of Afghanistan cannot function. This is the cause of poverty and hunger.  

In fact, the means of aid provision actually empowers the regime, Madadi said, by allowing it to do two things: Use aid money to pay its own soldiers while leveraging aid for political reasons within the country (for example, withholding funds from provinces it deems as unfriendly to Taliban rule or provinces populated by ethnic minorities), and allow the Taliban to keep all of the funds it raises to reinforce its own grip on power while providing no governance or public services using its own money. 

International aid and state-building as usual will not be effective in Afghanistan. In addition to funds being misused by the regime, the economic structure is still overly centralized in Kabul, leaving outer provinces at a distinct disadvantage. That, in Madadi’s opinion, is why decentralization is essential. 

“I think state building efforts in Afghanistan have usually followed at least three objectives. The first and foremost is stability, to make sure they keep this country together and that European definition of monopolizing the use of force. The other objective has been to create a national identity where everybody sees himself or herself in that identity as a collective. And the third one, which has been much more prominent since 2001, is to strengthen democratic principles and democratic institutions,” Madadi said. “My thinking is that all of those objectives would be served at best if you have a decentralized political structure. It allows people public participation across the country in a much more meaningful way. It makes the country much more stable because the root causes of the conflict is the division of political power. The conflict that you see in Afghanistan is mainly an ethnic conflict among different communities who cannot agree on how to divide power.” 

Madadi acknowledged that this sort of ethnic infighting is one reason that some are reluctant to advocate for the decentralization of Afghanistan. Common critiques are that the country is too fragmented and requires the kind of centralization seen in Kabul, that Afghanistan does not have the money or resources to restructure, and that now is simply not the proper time. 

“None of the countries you see that are decentralized have decentralized during their very shiny moments in history. If everything is perfectly fine, if a centralized system is fully functional and effective, there is no reason to decentralize. Decentralization comes as a solution at a time of crisis,” Madadi explained. “I think that a lot of the issues that critics of decentralization suggest as obstacles or reasons that will incentivize us not decentralize are actually the reasons for decentralization. Decentralization is not a factor that will divide the country, it’s something that will bring the country [together].”