Afghanistan and Moral Government: What If?

Over the weekend, as the elected secular government of Afghanistan met its death, my staff asked what, if anything, the Caux Round Table’s ethical principles implied for a conflict of moral visions like that in Afghanistan between the Taliban’s Sunni fundamentalism vindicating the plan of a God for human perfection and the faiths of other Afghans, which were at odds with such regimentation of belief and how one ought to live. The Afghan conflict, as in most conflicts where one side insists on an appeal to heaven rather than to some mere human tribunal for vindication of its righteousness, was one of open war, in this case, an insurgency.

Overlooked by the Americans, their NATO partners and most of their Afghan counterparts was the basic law of insurgency, as pithily stated by the Great Helmsman Mao Zedong: “Guerillas are fish who swim in the sea of the people.” To end an insurgency, you either have to kill all the insurgents or dry up the sea. It turns out that, like fish in the sea, insurgents breed quickly, easily replacing those who are pulled from the waters. But if the sea evaporates, the fish will die off.

So, to prevent an insurgency like the Taliban from imposing its will on a nation, the sea, that is, the people, must be organized to turn against the fish and deny them a supportive environment. The people must drive out the insurgents from each and every local community. This is done by giving the people rights of self-government, self-development and self-defense.

The effort must be decentralized, flexible, participatory and, above all, rest on a moral value that the people honor and respect.

The Caux Round Table Principles for Moral Government point every government in just that direction. So, those principles were, after all, relevant to a country like Afghanistan going through violent trials and tribulations.

The fundamental principle for moral government is that public power is held in trust for the community. Thus, the government, at every level, from national leaders and central bureaucracies, down to village councils, must be a trustee of the common good. Government office is not for personal aggrandizement or exploitation. Government is to serve those who are to benefit from its powers and authority, not rule them as submissive menials and craven subjects.

This directive points government towards decentralization, providing opportunities for its smallest collectives and never forgetting the aspirations of individuals. Power should flow downwards to embrace the people; never concentrated at some single centralized point of sovereignty.

Public power brings responsibility; power is a necessary moral circumstance in that it binds the actions of one to the welfare of others. The state is the servant and agent of higher ends; it is subordinate to society. Public power is to be exercised within a framework of moral responsibility for the welfare of others. Governments that abuse their trust shall lose their authority and may be removed from office.

Thus, standards for performance evaluation, promotion, hiring and training must privilege these behaviors. Since “Holders of public office are accountable for their conduct while in office, they are subject to removal for malfeasance, misfeasance or abuse of office.”

Next, a government seeking to defeat an insurgency must use discourse ethics, not the law of the gun. “Public power, however allocated by constitutions, referendums or laws, shall rest its legitimacy in processes of communication and discourse among autonomous moral agents who constitute the community to be served by the government. Free and open discourse, embracing independent media, shall not be curtailed, except to protect legitimate expectations of personal privacy, sustain the confidentiality needed for the proper separation of powers or for the most dire of reasons relating to national security.

The government must engage the people at large with reason, not with coercion.

Thirdly, a government must take action to protect and promote the integrity, dignity and self-respect of its members in their capacity as citizens and, therefore, avoid all measures, oppressive and other, whose tendency is to transform the citizen into a subject.

Fourth, public office is not to be used for personal advantage, financial gain or as a prerogative manipulated by arbitrary, personal desire. Corruption – financial, political and moral – is inconsistent with stewardship of public interests. Only the rule of law is consistent with a principled approach to use of public power. Thus, the government must invest in a professional judiciary, train lawyers, have inspectorates and discipline its officials.

The political process, which produced government leaders, must be similarly disciplined to avoid cronyism and the rent-seeking which funds such cabals and factions.

Fifth, the civic order, through its instrumentalities, shall provide for the security of life, liberty and property for its citizens in order to insure domestic tranquility.

The civic order shall defend its sovereign integrity, its territory and its capacity to pursue its own ends to the maximum degree of its own choice and discretion within the framework of international law and principles of natural justice. This ethical principle justified the use of force against the Taliban.

Sixth, the state shall nurture and support all those social institutions most conducive to the free self-development and self-regard of the individual citizen. Public authority shall seek to avoid or to ameliorate conditions of life and work which deprive the individual citizen of dignity and self-regard or which permit powerful citizens to exploit the weak. The Afghan government and Afghan civil society, with assistance and advice from foreign friends, did quite successfully meet this obligation in towns and cities, but less so in rural areas. However, some 2,000 community development councils were organized and funded across the country.

But the development effort was not turned over to local governments, nor was it integrated with local self-government or military and police operations designed to defend local communities 24/7.

In my study of Afghanistan for my 2017 book on the use of associative power in defeating insurgencies, I found that the various efforts of the U.S., its NATO allies and Afghan partners did not 1) sufficiently decentralize power to involve the people in their communities; 2) did not provide a fundamental moral basis, say the Qur’anic concept of justice, applicable to all Afghans, which gave reason to oppose any Taliban dictatorship; 3) did not sufficiently minimize cronyism and rent-seeking; and 4) did not sufficiently hold its officials accountable as trustees of the public good.

These failures, in my judgment, permitted the Taliban to swim pretty easily in the sea of the people for two decades (not to mention their safe havens in Pakistan), bringing to naught all the sacrifices and good efforts to deliver on many of the ethical standards of moral government advocated by the Caux Round Table.