A Distant Dream
Bringing democracy to Afghanistan is a part of the western agenda supported by considerable funding over the past four years. Will democracy become sustainable after the Western nations withdraw?
The Taliban in Afghanistan are fond of saying to any westerners they may meet that ‘you have the watches but we have the time’. It may be intended as an ironic comment on the transitory nature of western engagement in Afghanistan but it has a bedrock of truth in it. Afghanistan has been a graveyard for the ambitions and enterprises of external players for centuries. No external force or nation has ever successfully held on to Afghanistan long term; nor been able to supplant or replace tribal customs and traditions that to this day underpin government. The democratic model as practised in the west has never been an easy fit in Afghanistan and the current attempt to democratise this least democratically-inclined of states is no more likely to succeed than any previous attempt.
At first sight the Afghanistan of today is very different to the one which the Taliban left behind when they went home rather than fight in 2001. There is an executive, a legislature and a judiciary and a president elected to a second term in an election that was anything but free and fair. There is a constitution which in theory provides equality for all and there is institutionalised corruption at every level of government be it provincial or federal. President Karzai in common with many of his ministers is a past employee of an NGO and he runs the government (where he runs the government) much as he would the family business. Other government members were part of the old Communist regime or relics of the mujahedeen.
The reality of governance is very different across much of the country. There has hardly been a time in the last 263 years of the modern state of Afghanistan when foreign hands have not had a finger on the tiller, and Afghans rightly point out that for much of that time they have been ruled - but not had governance exclusively in their own hands. In those areas where they have had the opportunity to run their own affairs, democracy is never the chosen model. Given a free choice most Afghans would not choose the democratic path but prefer to use traditional tribal structures and processes, albeit with some modification in a nod towards modernity, few would ever vote for equal rights for women or willingly include women in the business of government. It is not, as has been argued, that Afghans do not like government – they do. They just do not like the kind of government currently being dispensed to them by a visiting doctor.
It is also difficult to provide governance that has legitimacy in a state consumed by warfare. Much of the south and east of the country is ruled
by the Taliban in a series of parallel structures. They are able to do so not so much as a product of their own strength but as a product of the weakness of the government in Kabul. They are able to conduct a low-intensity asymmetric conflict in which they have fought ISAF to a stalemate and from the western military perspective the war is now unwinnable. They are winning as much by default as by design, and can rightly point to a central government that has failed to put its own house in order which has allowed power to flow into their hands.
There is a particularly illustrative moment in the recently-released documentary film ‘The battle for Marjah’. The town of Marjah was ‘taken’ by U.S. Marines during Operation Moshtarek in early 2010. The Taliban having melted away after inflicting minor casualties on the Americans, the marines set about winning the ‘hearts and minds’ battle. They build a small play-park for women and children and equip it with park benches much as they would a park in their home cities. The look on the faces of local people as they viewed this piece of inappropriate civic architecture spoke volumes. We are never told in the film whether the people of Marjah had been consulted as to whether or not they wanted a park, but it may be reasonable to assume this to be unlikely. Later, a Marjah resident observed that once the Americans had gone the Taliban would be back, and all they had to do was wait and they are very patient people.
It is ten years since the Taliban ‘fell’ and the democratic experiment in Afghanistan is still not only a work in progress but a work in its early stages. Arguably, democratisation as a clear aim has only been on the western agenda and significantly funded in the last four years. Western nations are already preparing for their withdrawal. Will democracy embed and become sustainable after they withdraw? The lesson of history is that it will not and Afghanistan’s future looks to be as chaotic and fragmented as its past. The writer is a British columnist settled in Pakistan. He writes extensively on political and developmental issues of the region and has been covering Afghanistan politics for SouthAsia.
True democracy in Afghanistan seems to be a far-fetched idea.