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?

Southasia - - Cover story - By Chris Cork

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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Pakistan

© PressReader. All rights reserved.