The Application of Federalism in Overseas Stability Operations

Since the commencement of Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) in 2001 and Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF)/Operation New Dawn (OND) in 2003 and 2010, the United States and its coalition partners attempted to replace and reform a thoroughly medieval society in Afghanistan and a national socialist system in Iraq. While the two nations differ significantly, the nation building approach used to reform both nations followed an eerily similar pattern: build a strong central government, establish strong and professional national security forces, and conduct elections to gain legitimacy for the new government. The result has seen the rise of weak and incompetent governments with rampant corruption, and the rise of violent insurgencies challenging the legitimacy of the host nation’s government.

The conventional thinking regarding counterinsurgencies is that they take 10 years to conclude. The inherent problem with the strategic approach used in Iraq and in Afghanistan is impatience to rebuild their societies by employ the concept of federalism to harness the established forms of political power in each country. Federalism would have placed the responsibility of governance, justice, security, and economic development at the lowest level possible, where it was desired by Iraqi society and had long been established in Afghan society, while also retaining national level authorities to provide the oversight and services beneficial to the entire nation (i.e. international trade, foreign policy, and national security).

The concept of federalism goes beyond having provincial, regional, and sub-regional governing institutions. Federalism empowers semi-sovereign institutions at the local level with the constitutional powers that allow both levels of government to act directly upon the citizens through their officials and laws. Iraq and Afghanistan have historically employed tiered levels of government responsibility; however, their histories differed in the application of authorities and application of power. Iraq’s history consisted of strong central governments with weak provincial governments with little authority to establish rules, collect taxes, and administer justice. Afghanistan’s history has been one of weak central governments and a greater reliance on local tribal authorities. Though coming from opposite directions, both nations suffered from the inefficient use of their financial and material resources, created conditions for corruption and nepotism, and failed to govern in a manner that was acceptable to the will of the people. Had those nations established a form of federalism acceptable to their people and that efficiently divided the responsibility for governance, it is possible that both societies would have a more stable state than recently experienced.

As the US and its coalition partners removed the Taliban and Ba’athist regimes and began the process of creating modern democracies, it failed to account for the one aspect of our own constitutional development and history — the separation of enumerated powers granted to the federal and state governments based on established interests. Our own experience as individual states with their own constitutions, the establishment and failure of the Articles of Confederation, and subsequent drafting of our Constitution resulted from a long historical experience of governance at the local and state level. The failures of the Articles of Confederation and success of our modern constitution are derived from the benefits of having a system based the division of labor between the levels of government, more efficient use of financial and material resources, and the ability of the government to respond and be held accountable by the people. Additionally, our model of federalism has allowed leaders to be groomed at the lowest levels ranging from townships and cities, to states, and eventually the federal government.

While being sensitive to not glorify British imperialism, historical examples from the 18th and 19th centuries can be instructive. It should be noted that the societal and governmental development experiences in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and India show a form of federalism in which they were allowed, and trained, to run their own local governing bodies (e.g. legislative bodies in the American states and the British Raj in India). Though not a foregone conclusion at the time, this resulted in the development of educated and proficient bureaucrats who would lead to smoother transitions to self-rule. Had the U.S. taken a page from its own history and employed the concept of federalism to address existing power structures, it is probable Iraq and Afghanistan would have had a less violent experience in the stability operations that followed the fall of the Taliban and Ba’athist regimes, while also providing a stable model for other regimes in the region.

Chad Pillai a U.S. Army strategist. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the policy of position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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