The Godfather and the Problem of Afghani Governance

by Nathan on July 26, 2011

Remember that scene at the beginning of The Godfather when Vito was seeing friends and family members on his daughter’s wedding day for a variety of requests and favors, upholding a Sicilian tradition?  An Italian immigrant mortician eventually comes to Vito and tells him how a couple of young men severely battered and raped his daughter.  Even more disturbing to the man was that the justice system, which is rife with corruption, only gave those punks a slap on the wrist for their heinous crime.  He came to Vito requesting their murder, a punishment he deemed much more proper for their offence.  In other words, he was asking Vito for justice.  Vito, however, refuses to murder the boys because she wasn’t murdered.  While the assault and rape were certainly heinous crimes, of which Vito commiserates with the mortician, but it is not exactly a fair ‘tit for tat’.  Vito does, however, agree to have a few of his men beat them to an inch of their life.  That, he believes, would be justice.  The mortician finally agrees and kisses Vito’s hand, sealing his respect and reverence for the Godfather.

(Source: AMC Movie Blog)

What happened in this scene is that a citizen of a society lost faith in his government’s ability to administer justice, and therefore transferred his trust and faith to another citizen (albeit a powerful one).  So now instead of the government deciding what is just and unjust and administering satisfactory punishment, it is now another private citizen.

This scene represents a classic breakdown of the rule-of-law in a civil society.  When citizens no longer trust that the government can perform the most vital and essential public services – upholding the rule-of-law in this instance – they will oftentimes resort of outside parties.  In this case, the man went to Vito Corleone to uphold the rule-of-law and administer what he deemed adequate justice.

This scene can also be used to illustrate one of the most fundamental challenges to establishing a civil society in Afghanistan, which is an important, if not the most important goal in our military campaign in the country.  The establishment of a civil society is contingent on the rule-of-law, which can only be administered by a government.  But when the government is corrupted, the system of rule-of-law inevitably becomes corrupted, and the citizens eventually lose faith in the government’s ability to administer justice (just as the mortician lost faith in the justice system in The Godfather). In short order, civil society breaks down.  The challenge in establishing a civil society in Afghanistan is that its government is corrupt to the core (in fact, it was deemed the third most corrupt country in the world according to Transparency International).  The list of acts of corruption, according to a slightly dated NYT article, is astounding: “police officials who steal truckloads of gasoline; judges and prosecutors who make decisions based on bribes; high-ranking government officials who reap payoffs from hashish and chromite smuggling; and midlevel security and political jobs that are sold, sometimes for more than $50,000, money the buyers then recoup through still more bribes and theft.”  In consequence, the Afghani people turn to tribal leaders, not the government, for basic government services, most importantly of which are protection and the administration of the rule-of-law.

But so what?  Why would it matter if the Afghani people turn to tribal leaders for justice instead of the government?  It matters because all those things that we’re entitled to in the United States – such as due process and objectivity in the law – are gone when you have a tribal system.  In a dispute in Afghanistan, the dispute isn’t about who is right according to the law – it is about who is right in the eyes of the tribal leader.  So what if you’re not from the same ethnic race as him, or practice his religion, or are aligned with any of the other infinite number of prejudices with which he makes decision?  What are the chances that you’ll receive fair treatment?  Are you willing to take the risk that that tribal leader will judge you fairly?

It ultimately matters because a civil society is the only way in which economic activity will flourish.  And when economic activity flourishes, the Afghani people will have a higher standard of living and thereby have less of an incentive to join or cooperate with the Taliban and the likes of al Qaeda.  There is no quicker way to crush economic activity than through violence; and there is no quicker way to induce violence than through the breakdown of the rule-of-law.

Without a legitimate sense, or perception, of the rule-of-law in Afghanistan, there can be no civil society and the threat of the Taliban to the United States will not be extinguished (or at least completely marginalized).

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