War & Peace

Guest Blog: Ruling from the Mezzanine – the Balkh case


The debate about the role of former commanders and warlords in the Afghan statehood and its regions, about whether they might integrate into the ‘new’ Afghanistan, become civilised by playing (in) the institutions as well as about what that means for the country’s direction is as controversial as inconclusive. Our guest blogger Michael Daxner* looks at Balkh province as one example and at the scenarios in it.

What do we expect from a good governor? He should govern effectively, provide welfare and security for his province, enforce the rule of law, have an open mind and listen to the people; his contacts with the central government should be good enough to allow a continuous stream of means and provisions flow into his province as to guarantee development and stability. And, of course, the governor should comply with the law himself and follow the rules of democratic order.

Some of these requirements are very difficult to deliver, even by powerful and capable governors. The central government is losing legitimacy and the power to provide local services and development as expected; it cannot comply with the needs of the provinces and the districts; while on the other hand its policy of impunity does disillusion the people in their belief in the rule of law.

A province like Balkh (that I visited this year, and before), just to give an example, may allow a look into one possible option for the future. Balkh province, under Governor Atta, is relatively well ‘functioning’. Many of the expectations in the governor are met considerably well, as compared to other provinces. Atta is a strong man. Atta rules a province as if it were a little state inside the state. Of course, there are relations between him and the central government in Kabul, but often it appears that he has taken over the structuring force to mold the province according to his ideas of maintaining power and recognition. He is too strong as to being simply replaced, and he is obviously, at the moment, not inclined to expand his territory. He is what may be called in a modern term, a mezzanine ruler**, a lord of the first floor in a house of many floors.

This situation may add to a certain process of stabilization of the country, as long as the internal structures and developments in Balkh do not violate too excessively the framework of the Afghan statehood. But don’t ask what happens inside the province, when it comes to the normal impediments to democracy and human rights in the country. Stability does not mean democracy or human rights or a thriving civil society. Perhaps, it is not worse here than elsewhere, but in other places there is no mezzanine ruler.

In the European Middle Ages, we had an interesting phenomenon: a count or big territorial ruler used to move to the capital and put an administrator into his territory, in order to have his interests taken care of. Quite often, the administrator became first the real strong man, and then acquired also legitimacy and the title of the regional ruler.

This was one way of state-building within an empire then. Is Balkh a state within a state? Not yet, certainly. Atta’s role is more and less than the function of a mere administrator at the same time. The way he governs is, however, important for an outlook: if his rule appears to be more and more independent from the wishes and directions from Kabul, it may be a blueprint for an unwanted variety of federalism and decentralization. He will not face much opposition from the people of Balkh as long he delivers the basic collective goods each community needs: education, health, courts and security. But what, if Atta only establishes a strict order and does not allow the people to determine their way of life and to pursue their interests? Then the province will be a stronghold against the unification of a country and a state that is in dear need of unity under democratic rule and with uniting perspectives for its future.

* * *

This is just an example. There are parallels in other provinces, e.g. the distant influence of Ismail Khan on Herat. Afghanistan is already fragmented. The constitution and the structure of the central state have avoided any real decentralization or federalism. The mezzanine rulers may force the country into an unwanted further fragmentation.
(*) Professor of Sociology and University President emeritus (Oldenburg), Senior Research Fellow at the Freie Universität Berlin and Senior Fellow at the Berghof Conflict Research, and a former advisor to the Afghan Minister for Higher Education 2003-2005

(**) Crawford, M. M., Jami (2010). ‘The Rise of the Mezzanine Rulers – The New Frontier for International Law’, Foreign Affairs 89(6): 9.

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Thematic Category: War & Peace