Democracy in Afghanistan

Polling station. Kandahar, 2009.

You’ve heard it all before. Whenever analysts discuss how to bring democracy to Afghanistan, they emphasize the need for security and development as necessary prerequisites. It’s an appealing model, for sure. Security means an end to feudal politics. Infrastructure means a better standard of living. Democracy comes next. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Not just regionally, but ideologically.

It’s crucial to understand the perspectives that inform this rhetoric. In the context of the Muslim world, as an analytical model, it serves few useful purposes. At the very least, it reflects incorrect ideas about how democracy begins. At its worst, it’s used as justification for foreign military interventions, particularly those following the Kosovo War. At that time, German sociologist Ulrich Beck controversially dubbed it “military humanism.”  Though meant as a criticism of NATO’s war against Serbia, the newspeak it describes has since become commonplace.

The arguments may vary. But they all hold that people begin to demand democracy when they have material wealth, and have begun building a middle class. The idea is that although democracy best be realized immediately, (and in some ways it can,) other crucial requirements, such as an end to corruption, can be delayed, as market-based economies grow. Meanwhile, the security apparatus keeps a lid on extremists, and those seeking to restore the ancien régime.

If only democratization were that simple. There are three problems here. The first is that it assumes that democracy only results from material well-being, an idea typical to Anglo-American conservatism, and, ironically, also, Leninism. The second is that it helps rationalize the necessity of violence, particularly that of state security services, in enforcing democratic norms. This, in turn, cultivates a backlash, which, though expected, has far deeper roots than stock markets and voting.

The main reason that democracy hasn’t taken root in Afghanistan is because it was never accompanied by any kind of generalized redistribution of wealth or resources. Not just the sort promised by Russian socialism, but even taxation, in Western market economies. Hence the continuity between Communist rule in the 1970s and 1980s, and free-market Islamist governance today. Although certain reforms were secured by both regimes, Afghanistan has never been able to move forward into modernity, in any reasonable social or political sense.

To their credit, Afghanistan’s Communists, had better ideas about building democracy. Nonetheless, they remained constrained by their crude materialism. The Communists never thought of democracy as a set of social relations based on individual and group consent, aiming towards self-determination. Like many in the eastern bloc, they construed it to be a material force, generated by new types of economic practice.

Hamid Karzai’s market Islamists, conversely, are misunderstood, persistently, as local Christian democrat-equivalents, in a European sense. They are traditional and modern, a mix that’s typically appreciated in colonial contexts, as though it is the best solution for satisfying the political cultures of both occupier and occupied. Though they appreciate the power of capitalism, their embrace of democracy is more a reflection of where development assistance and military aid flows from. It’s a matter of realpolitik rather than political conviction, even if it requires elections.

Afghan elections. Kandahar, 2009.
Afghan elections. Kandahar, 2009.

Crude materialism can easily inspire an ends justifying the means sort of ethos. If democracy depends more on getting the right cocktail together than effecting egalitarian politics, it becomes easy justification for authoritarianism. Locally-speaking, this has allowed for Afghanistan to be filled with zealots who want to realize democracy without its ethical roots, and cynics who recognize it as good cover for pursuing their own interests.

Consider the two prominent Afghan Communist factions in the era of the party’s dominance: the Khalqis and Parchamis. From the outset, the claim of “laying the foundations for socialism” led to them bringing about the Saur Revolution without significant popular support. It was also invoked repeatedly as the Khalqis presided over a bloodbath, before being succeeded by the Parchamis, who ultimately went on to defend a vicious Soviet military occupation by that same line. And for its part, the Soviet Union was able to use it to claim that they were “defending Afghanistan’s revolution” while actually intending to harness its strategic value and annex its resources into the Soviet bloc.

The situation continues with the NATO-ISAF occupation today. Names and faces may have changed, but the core problem remains one of sanctified benchmarks that allow governance by a political elite that is crafty and domineering at its best, and ideologically insane at its worst. Slightly different phrases like “state-building” are trotted out while other geopolitical trends play out behind the public justifications. The more that democracy is argued to be in reach, the further away it seems, as violence remains a daily reality.

Which brings us to the last problem. There is an argument built into the formulas where a vaguely-defined amount of security is needed before they can work properly due to some type of backlash. The Russian army needed to defend Afghanistan’s fragile socialist gains in the same manner that American military commanders like Robert Gates have stated that they must defend Afghanistan’s fragile, market-driven, democratic gains.

But apologists for these occupations have never deeply reflected on how the processes they were defending produced exactly the conditions that required more security. Communist rule was so authoritarian in Afghanistan that violent opposition was inevitable. The NATO-ISAF occupation has inspired exactly the same sort of response. Yet, neither the Americans nor the Russians have managed to reflect on the fact that their failures were ideological as much as strategic.

Democracy is not a zero-sum game. It requires that people think differently. Not just those who need it, but those doing the imposing, as well. It’s not dependent on affluence, either. Democracy can also serve as its inspiration, to foster greater equality. Certainly,  one can argue that democracy was never a serious goal in Afghanistan. However insincere, the rhetoric still promises something, even those for whom it is a means, rather than an end. As long as that remains the case, it’s incumbent that we combat the idea’s abuses. After all,  democracy not just an analytical tool. It’s a better reality.


Photographs courtesy of  Canada in Afghanistan. Published under a Creative Commons License.

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