CSRC Working Paper 43

Who governs Kabul? Explaining urban politics in a post-war capital city
Working Paper No : 43 (series 2)
Author : Daniel Esser
Date : February 2009
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Amid intensifying international interconnectedness and simultaneous assertions that cities are positioned to supersede national governance, capital cities constitute collision points between political control and exclusion, wealth and poverty, as well as tradition and modernity. The ever-growing importance of cities as centres of political and economic power and as resources in developing countries is also increasingly prompting contenders to concentrate both peaceful and violent political campaigns in spaces of urban primacy. However, ensuing city-centred struggles are not only about resources and access to power but also take issue with the meanings and functions of the nation as a whole.

It is argued that the result of such multi-layered conflicts in capital cities produce a kind of 'over-determination' of political deliberation, putting additional weight on already ambitious urban development and governance agendas. This is especially true in post-war capital cities, where resulting 'sovereign conflicts' at the fault lines of local, national and international institutions shape political and economic agendas in and for post-war capital cities. Supercharged with donor monies and reconstruction machineries, these cities once again become highly politicised arenas characterised by discrepancies in political as well as economic leverage among different stakeholders. Defying official language, they are governed neither exclusively locally nor jointly by local and national entities, but in fact via ad hoc axes of governance that revolve around shared short-term incentives and interests of national and international actors.

Comparing recent politics and policies with historical data, this paper shows that in post-war Kabul it is the national-international axis that has the greatest influence over the formulation of policies geared toward alterations of existing institutions within the urban realm, excluding local interests and priorities. This constitutes a stark change compared to politics in Kabul prior to the Russian occupation and before, when the main fault lines of urban conflict ran between rivalling tribal and ethnic interests. Conversely, policymaking after 2001 has been even more concentrated 'above the heads' of the city's residents. This neglect of de facto equitable urban development serves to reinvigorate existing trigger factors of violent conflict in the urban realm, such as restricted public access to local policymaking and the urban land market, high rates of youth unemployment and poor urban services.

Preventing 'over-determined' cities from inciting renewed large-scale violence therefore necessitates context-specific analyses of urban histories and their particular interfaces with the political economies of state creation and consolidation. Moreover, it requires candid assessments of opportunities as well as limitations of constructive political engagement at the city level as a decisive arena for brokering peace in developing countries.

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