The two-decade effort by the United States and its NATO allies to build a modern liberal state in Afghanistan envisioned electoral democracy replacing village councils and other forms of customary authority. But citizens still rely on these community-based bodies to resolve disputes, provide small-scale public goods and services, and broker relations with local government. Customary institutions may also provide protection against predatory government officials. Although the international community has largely overlooked customary authority, US and NATO military forces eventually recognized their importance. Throughout history, Afghan rulers have regarded customary authorities as threats to their power, and they have been largely excluded from ongoing peace talks among the United States, the Afghan government, and the Taliban.

Afghanistan has a rich history of customary or traditional governance structures, especially in rural areas. Although many countries have such customary bodies, in Afghanistan they have remained central to the lives of most citizens. This is because the state has never been a viable alternative—either it has been largely indifferent to the plight of those outside a few urban centers, or it has seen local authorities who draw legitimacy from sources outside the state as a threat.

The fall of the Taliban government in 2001 and the start of a liberal state-building effort led by the United States and supported by its allies raised great hopes that a new era would be ushered in for the people of Afghanistan. It was envisioned that customary authority would become less important to citizens: they would be able to rely on a newly elected democratic government that represented the will of the people. But this change never happened.

Ironically, at the height of the push to build a new Afghan state, the popularity of customary authority surged among citizens. They relied on these community-based bodies to solve disputes and provide small-scale public goods and services. Customary institutions also fulfill an important political function: they serve as a bulwark of protection against predatory government officials. This became all the more important after 2001, as corruption became a national epidemic, thanks in part to a surge of international assistance that was poorly executed and inadequately monitored.

Over the past two decades, the United States, together with the international community, has provided trillions of dollars to construct a more durable state in Afghanistan. Like many liberal state-building efforts around the world since the end of the Cold War, the effort has focused on expanding governance capacity while simultaneously supporting new democratic institutions. Implicit in this focus on democracy is an assumption that organizations rooted in tradition and custom are incompatible with the demands of a modern state.

Rather than build on these informal social institutions, which many outsiders and leaders seeking to modernize Afghanistan view as bastions of conservative values that undermine the state, the international community preferred to build new organizations at the community level that they believed would be more compatible with democracy. In the years after 2001, the Afghan government embarked on a bold project to replace customary authorities with more than 30,000 newly created village councils, many of which withered away when donor funding dissipated.

This was a replay of a historical pattern in Afghanistan. Rulers bent on modernization have at best viewed customary society with disdain, and at worst treated it with neglect. No Afghan leader has ever embraced its institutions as a source of support. They have always been viewed from Kabul as a threat. Despite such perceptions, customary governance structures based in villages have remained resilient. They have evolved and changed over time to adapt to the needs of citizens.

In this sense, such authority is not “traditional,” since it is not frozen in time. Rather, it is “customary,” because customs and norms change over time. While many of the names of this type of authority have not changed, the rules by which it operates have evolved.

Some policymakers—both Afghan and international—began to appreciate the centrality of customary authority in rural life a few years after 2001. But few could explain why it was effective. The inner workings of customary governance seemed to be a black box.

Before Afghanistan’s communist revolution in 1978, anthropologists and historians had documented the features of customary governance, noting its importance in rural parts of the country. Customary authorities included many local khans who were denounced as “feudal” by Afghan communists. These critiques neglected the fact that customary organizations assumed a vital role in providing public services and solving disputes, in many instances acting when the state was unwilling or unable to do so.

When the post-2001 international state-building effort began, most international and Afghan policymakers assumed that this local form of self-governance had withered away due to war and migration. Diagnoses of how to rebuild the state thus were based on a faulty assumption that rural areas had no governing authority, and that new authority was needed to connect Kabul to the countryside. This assumption led not only to wasteful policies, but also to a missed opportunity for the nascent state to partner with community leaders, who were generally eager to cooperate.

Despite many predictions of its demise, customary authority in rural Afghanistan has endured, renewing and sometimes reinventing itself. Although many of the faces changed at the local level, these institutions have continued solving disputes and brokering relations between communities and local governments, making them indispensable to citizens. Two decades after the state-building effort began in earnest, the state still cannot fulfill many of these functions, so customary authorities continue to fill the gap. The resilience of these organizations is a paradox: they became stronger at a time when international efforts to rebuild the Afghan state were at an apogee.

Every household has the right to participate in meetings.

Throughout history, governments have pursued development strategies that either presumed the failure of customary authority or opposed it as a “backward” obstacle to development and state consolidation. Yet it is often the most effective source of governance in a situation where the state has been unreliable, hostile, or both.

Unfortunately, post-2001 Afghanistan did not see the transformation of the state that so many had expected. The state gained a reputation for being corrupt, predatory, ineffective, or completely absent. Customary organizations remained important because they provided essential public goods—and because they were much more accountable to citizens.

Rather than continue to view customary governance as a threat, the state should recognize that its persistence reflects its effectiveness. The challenge for future Afghan leaders is to build on the legitimacy of customary institutions rather than ignore them or attempt to eradicate them.

During the ongoing peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government, the future status of customary authority has remained uncertain. In some instances, customary leaders have found ways to work with the Taliban. In other cases, they are under threat from the Taliban, who perceive customary leaders as a threat to their authority—a potential source of resistance.

Informal Authorities

Afghanistan is a diverse country, but despite substantial assistance, it has been unable to conduct a census since 1978. Both the exact size of the population and its composition remain unclear. The World Bank estimates there are around 38 million people in the country. Pashtuns comprise about 40 percent of the population, Tajiks roughly 30 percent, Hazaras 10 percent, and Uzbeks 9 percent. The remainder of the population includes Aimaq, Turkmen, Baluch, and various other groups.

The state is an Islamic republic, and most of the population is Sunni, with a Shia minority of 10–20 percent (the largest Shia group is the Hazaras). But many Afghans identify according to their qawm—a term of great fluidity. Depending on the context, it can refer to an ethnic group, tribe, sub-tribe, or even locality.

Despite ethnic, religious, tribal, and qawm differences, there is a great deal of similarity in the structure of informal, customary village organizations across the country. Villages are typically organized around three key informal political authorities: deliberative bodies (most referred to as shuras or jirgas), religious leaders (usually mullahs), and village representatives (known as maliks, qaradars, and arbabs, among other titles).

Shuras and jirgas are not fixed organizations that meet regularly. Instead, they convene when issues arise in a community that parties cannot resolve on their own, such as land disputes. Frequently, shuras or jirgas from two or more communities come together to try to resolve intercommunity disputes. Participants in shura or jirga meetings are most often men, but every household in a community has the right to participate. Decisions are made not by a majority vote, but rather through a consensus-building process that often takes days.

When communities cannot resolve disputes on their own, they often turn to woluswals (district governors), at the lowest level of formal government. Afghanistan has 34 provinces and more than 400 districts, which are directly beneath provinces.

Participants in shuras or jirgas are usually called elders or “white beards.” This honorific connotes a status based on respect within a community. It is not uncommon to find “white beards” who are in their thirties and have no gray hair. This is also because life expectancy in Afghanistan is among the lowest in the world.

Mullahs play an important spiritual role but also take on governance obligations. Members of a community may call on a mullah to resolve disputes, especially those that occur within families or fall within religious domains, such as matters of inheritance and property. Mullahs often provide testimony during community hearings. They also play a role in shura or jirga processes. Many villages have more than one mullah, and inhabitants describe the size of their village by the number of mosques it boasts: “Our village is large, we have five mosques.”

Finally, maliks are not leaders who have authority over others, but first among equals, informal public servants in the community. They are often described as the bridge between citizens and the state, representing communities to the outside world. In many districts, the woluswal considers maliks to be his village-level liaisons. After more than 20 years of state building, there is still no formal village government structure below the district authority in rural Afghanistan. This has been the case throughout Afghan history.

Maliks also serve as repositories of information about villages. Typically, they will be the holders of customary deeds or an informal land cadastre. Customary deeds are often countersigned by maliks in each community to confirm land ownership.

The role of maliks has changed over time. In the centuries before the Soviet invasion, many maliks (also known as khans or arbabs, depending on local usage) were large landowners. In some instances, they ruled as local dictators, though these norms evolved during the twentieth century. By the early 1970s, anthropologists found that the role of these maliks or khans had changed and they were no longer as powerful as they once were.

This evolutionary process sped up after 2001, when citizens were no longer content to be subjects of the state or anyone else. Maliks came to be seen more as community representatives. To serve in this role, a malik had to have a reputation for fairness. Most importantly, they had to be literate, in order to deal with government documents and officials. (In Afghanistan, the literacy rate hovers around 40 percent.) Although historically maliks were men, since 2001 it has become possible to find women serving in these positions.

Modernization and its Discontents

Customary governance played a notable role in Afghanistan’s history. Indeed, the country dates its founding to 1747, when Ahmad Shah was accepted by a group of customary representatives as the first king (shah) of the Afghan people during a meeting in Kandahar. The convening process for such a meeting is called a loya jirga (grand council). Its authority is based on custom, and Ahmad Shah’s legitimacy partly depended on the support he received from these representatives of distant communities. After his reign, the country had a series of relatively weak leaders who rarely sought to impose central authority over rural areas. This changed when Abdur Rahman came to power in 1880.

Rahman earned the nickname “Iron Amir” with unrelenting cruelty toward his adversaries. He had a singular objective during his brutal twenty-year rule: to centralize political authority and break the customary bonds of Afghan society. He believed that Afghanistan’s weakness was due to insufficient state centralization, which he blamed on the persistence of customary authority and tribal allegiances. During his bloody reign, he waged dozens of campaigns against customary and tribal representatives, whom he regarded as middlemen and petty tyrants challenging his authority.

Subsequent rulers were not as violent as Abdur Rahman, but they displayed similar animosity toward customary organizations. The Iron Amir’s grandson, Amanullah, who took the throne in 1919, pursued a more secular modernization strategy based on Atatürk’s model in Turkey (itself based on France’s secularization of society). Amanullah also viewed customary authority as a threat to the state. He elevated the role of formal courts and criminalized many customary practices. This alienated customary leaders and communities throughout the country. They refused to pay taxes and stopped participating in the traditional conscription system, which relied on maliks to send recruits from villages to enlist in the king’s army. Short of soldiers, Amanullah was deposed in 1928 by a rebellion led by a Tajik outsider with no military experience, Habibullah Kalakani.

Kalakani proved inept at governing and was overthrown by Amanullah’s former general, Nadir Shah, less than a year later. Nadir Shah in turn was assassinated in 1933, leading to the ascension of his son Zahir Shah, who came to power at the age of 19. He was unable to lead on his own and ruled initially through his uncles, who were powerful military men. During the four-decade reign of Zahir Shah, the government relaxed its stance toward customary governance, focusing instead on building up the military with foreign assistance, in the process becoming an aid-dependent rentier state.

Zahir Shah relied on maliks as intermediaries and rarely interfered in community life. But he also did little to develop rural economies. This underdevelopment ultimately contributed to the next wave of hostility toward both customary governance and the monarchy.

In 1973, Mohammed Daoud overthrew his cousin Zahir Shah in a bloodless coup. Daoud ended the monarchy and declared a republic, naming himself president. He began a series of reforms aimed at spurring economic development, many of which were designed to weaken customary authority through tactics such as small-scale land redistribution. Scorning his pace of reform as too slow, Khalq, a radical faction of the communist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, overthrew and executed Daoud, along with his family, in the April 1978 Saur Revolution.

The international community struggled to understand and effectively engage community leaders.

The Khalqis’ approach to economic reform involved replacing customary representatives with government agents, as well as stripping local maliks of authority, or even killing them. The Khalqis embarked on a program of extreme land redistribution, ignoring customary claims to private ownership. This triggered unrest in cities and rural areas throughout Afghanistan.

Fearing greater instability on its southern flank that could potentially destabilize the region, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, immediately deposing Khalqi leaders and replacing them with a somewhat more moderate faction that advocated a less violent path toward communism. During their 13-year reign, however, these communist leaders ordered killings of untold numbers of customary leaders in rural areas, viewing them as a threat to their authority.

The Soviet invasion triggered decades of conflict, which subsided to some degree when the Taliban took control of Kabul in 1996. As a religiously motivated movement, the Taliban elevated the role of mullahs in rural areas, preferring to rely on a network of religious leaders to run the country. Customary leaders were not always natural allies for the Taliban. Many were targets of assassination campaigns by the Taliban, just as they were during communist rule.

State-Building Stumbles

After the US military, alongside local factions from the Northern Alliance, helped topple the Taliban in 2001, the Americans and their allies embarked on a massive effort to build a viable, democratic Afghan state. At that time, most actors involved in international state-building efforts did not see that task as a formidable challenge, in part because they believed that there was a dearth of authority at the community level. One key assumption was that decades of conflict had decimated community structures not only through mass violence, but also through mass migration. After the Soviet invasion, millions of Afghans left their communities and headed to neighboring Pakistan or Iran as refugees. Many others migrated internally, leaving conflict-stricken villages for more peaceful urban centers.

There was an internal tension in the state-building project. On the one hand, many international organizations and governments involved in the project believed that they needed to step in with massive investments to create new organizations in light of this perceived vacuum. On the other hand, it was widely believed, especially among international development agencies, that the persistence of customary authority was an obstacle to the state.

Within a few years, US and other NATO military commanders, along with some Afghan government officials, saw that efforts to build new formal governance institutions were not working. The Taliban had begun to reassert themselves throughout the country, waging a new insurgency. Searching for an alternative to the state, which many Afghans increasingly viewed as corrupt and incapable, US military officers, in particular, started to look more favorably on customary institutions. They argued that these local bodies had proved their resilience by not collapsing during the war, and had provided communities with a badly needed alternative to the state.

Recognizing the important role that these institutions increasingly played in local governance, US and NATO military forces began to engage with them more systematically in efforts to fight the Taliban. They realized that many customary leaders were both neglected by the state and targeted by the insurgents. Foreign soldiers serving in some of the most contested terrain in Afghanistan began writing publicly for blogs like the Long War Journal about the vital functions such institutions assumed in villages around the country. They noted that customary authority was largely neglected by the international community. Rather than seeing a vacuum of authority at the local level, they hoped that communities, elders, and tribal authorities might provide an antidote to the Taliban.

These arguments were soon adopted by coalition commanders. US military leaders drafted a new counterinsurgency strategy in 2006 that called for soldiers on the ground to engage and work with local leaders. They believed that customary authorities could help mobilize citizens against the Taliban. Many customary leaders had been executed by the Taliban over the years, since the insurgents understood that in most communities the most potent challenge to their authority came not from the state, but from these local figures.

US and other foreign military forces thus tried to build on the legitimacy of customary authority and incorporate local leaders into their strategies. They supported many local communities with generous funding and provided arms in an effort to revive arbaki, or local tribal militias. But the international community struggled to understand and effectively engage community leaders, especially at the height of an armed conflict, and its interventions were ultimately unsuccessful.

As soon as an influx of resources arrived in a community, it shifted the local power dynamics, creating incentives for every individual to claim customary leadership. Efforts to arm communities also did the opposite of what was intended. Rather than create a fighting force composed of locally legitimate units drawn from communities, they ended up creating militias that empowered warlords, some of whom had few ties to the communities they were supposed to represent but instead terrorized.

Evolving Institutions

Missing in all of these initiatives was an understanding of how customary governance was now organized after decades of conflict. Customary authority in Afghanistan had not disappeared during decades of war. It evolved to become more adaptive and responsive to citizens’ needs.

Outsiders failed to appreciate the constructive role that such authority might play in state-building efforts. Rather than build on what was already there, external actors and the Afghan state sought to create new parallel organizations at the village level that were supposed to replace customary institutions. Instead, they withered away when donor funding dwindled.

For many Afghans in rural areas, where around 75 percent of the population still resides and where the insurgency is being fought, customary governance remains the most important source of authority. Yet customary authority did not emerge unchanged from decades of war. In many ways, it became more participatory and even more democratic. In some villages, communities began selecting their customary leaders using ballot boxes. In others, women served as maliks—something almost unheard of in the past.

Dispute resolution is still a critical function of customary governance. Afghans trust customary leaders more than any other authority to resolve disagreements ranging from land to family matters. Formally, state courts have authority to resolve conflicts over land, but few Afghans go to court. Instead, they continue to turn to customary leaders. In Taliban-controlled areas, the insurgents have usurped this power. But most public opinion data show that citizens overwhelmingly prefer customary authorities to resolve such disputes.

Customary governance has notable challenges with scale. Its institutions are not able to provide larger-scale public goods like clinics or build other infrastructure, but they can organize effectively within their communities. It is at the intra-communal level that customary authority breaks down and outside intervention is most needed. There is a complementary role for government to take on, if it can accept a burden-sharing division of labor with customary organizations.

Most Afghan leaders and many international donors saw the relationship between customary authority and the state in zero-sum terms. But foreign military leaders regarded customary authority as a complement to the state, rather than as a competitor. Although the coalition forces made major missteps in their dealings with customary organizations, their approach was more nuanced than others.

Customary authority can partner with Afghanistan’s weak state, providing governance in response to smaller-scale challenges in areas that the state is simply unable to reach. Increasing the state’s effectiveness is still a critical task. But this is difficult when the presumption that customary governance is inherently opposed to the state results in neglect of the potential for a complementary relationship.

Trust Factor

Two decades after international efforts to rebuild the Afghan state began, the central government is weaker than it has been at almost any point in recent history. More than half of the country’s territory is in the hands of the Taliban insurgency. The state is not only weak in terms of its ability to provide security; it also lacks legitimacy among many of its citizens.

Customary authority evolved to become more adaptive and responsive to citizens’ needs.

The Afghan government, with the support of the international community, has focused on centralizing power in Kabul. This renewed effort at state-building has failed to take account of two important factors. First, it has not recognized the strength and legitimacy of customary authority throughout much of the country. Second, it has overlooked the deep distrust of the central government that has persisted among Afghans for centuries.

The missteps by both the international community and the Afghan government repeated previous errors by earlier governments and donors. Each succeeding attempt to build a state in Afghanistan has been based on the assumption that increased aid can produce a centralized government, and that this process requires a simultaneous withering of customary authority at the local level. In other words, it is presumed that community institutions whose legitimacy relies on traditional or customary sources are at odds with a modern state.

For the past 150 years, Afghan leaders have sought to build the state based on this mistaken assumption. They have missed opportunities to connect with communities and build legitimacy through cooperation with customary leaders, who are often eager to engage with the state.

Part of the problem is that customary authority in Afghanistan remains poorly understood. Unlike many tribal societies where chiefs rule on hierarchical lines, Afghan customary governance is largely decentralized and egalitarian. It is also competitive, with shuras, maliks, and mullahs balancing each other’s authority at the community level.

The Afghan experience holds lessons for rulers trying to consolidate their authority and modernize their societies. Even democratically elected leaders often believe that they must centralize authority to achieve progress. Leaders in Afghanistan have pursued this strategy throughout the country’s modern history, with unfortunate results. In the past, customary authorities were subjected to extreme violence. Today, they are largely neglected by the central government, which continues to view them as an obstacle to modernization, development, and state consolidation.

Despite this hostility, customary authority remains central to community life in Afghanistan. It has persisted and evolved to fill a governance gap at a time when the state and the Taliban insurgency have been unable to provide a better alternative. Yet Afghan central government leaders have never tried to partner with or earn the trust of customary leaders in rural areas. This has proved an enormous obstacle to gaining the trust of citizens and building peace in Afghanistan.

Despite the persistence and evolution of Afghan customary authority, its voice has remained largely unheard during the peace talks with the Taliban. Many local leaders have called for greater decentralization of power to provinces, districts, and communities. There is some hope that a power-sharing agreement between the Taliban and the current government could lead to such decentralization. This would give much more power and authority to customary leaders and the communities they represent at the local level.

Yet there is much uncertainty on the path to peace. In its history as a modern state, the government of Afghanistan has never devolved power to authorities at the subnational level. Without such decentralizing reforms, it will be challenging for a nation of such diverse communities, with different visions of the role of the state in society, to achieve peace.