Afghanistan: The Fragile Future of Democracy

07 Jul, 2014    ·   4597

Matthew Porges writes about the complexities involved in ensuring the sustenance of democratic structures in Afghanistan in a post-NATO period

Afghanistan’s ongoing presidential election, if successful, will mark the first transfer of power via an election in that country's history. Election does not necessarily imply democracy. Afghanistan's previous two presidential elections, both won by incumbent Hamid Karzai, saw ubiquitous election fraud; and there are legitimate questions about how representative one leader or political party can be in a country so fraught with sectarian and tribal divisions. Nowhere are these divisions more apparent than in the central challenge of selling the whole process of democracy to the Afghan people.

Afghanistan's divisions are manifested partly in the readiness of many Afghans to pursue other avenues when the State looks less than functional, which is its usual condition. Presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah, who withdrew from the 2009 election to protest Karzai's election fraud, has threatened to create a “parallel state,” by force if necessary, if the currently disputed outcome cannot be resolved. This willingness on Abdullah's part is suggestive of many things, most important of which may be a lack of confidence that the central government can effectively represent more than one of Afghanistan's many groups at a time. Abdullah nominally represents Tajik interests—the northern part of the country—despite his own mixed ancestry.

Ashraf Ghani, the other candidate, has more widespread support among Pashtuns. The challenge all parties face is in trying to make this election more than a contest to see which ethnic group has more voters.

There are a lot of ways to slice Afghanistan: along tribal lines, religious lines, political allegiances, ethnicity, or even language. Western powers, however, have chosen none of these divisions. Afghanistan is to be ruled as a single state, headquartered in Kabul, and is to be a democracy. The 2004 constitution under which Karzai has vaguely been operating grants considerable powers of centralisation: for instance, the president appoints not only regional governors, but also the police chiefs.

In a country like Afghanistan, where adjacent regions may be radically different, this is understandably concerning to anyone not belonging to the current president's particular ethnic group. In part, this will be mitigated by various power-sharing measures, such as reinstating the position of a Prime Minister, as well as proposed elections for regional governors. While this is a step in the right direction, it is not without its own dangers. Democracy can take many different forms, and centralised government is not the only way to rule Afghanistan. Working with instead of against Afghanistan's existing tribal structures remains an open challenge for both the West and any future government in Kabul.

The larger question, perhaps even bigger than identifying the least dysfunctional sort of governance, is whether or not Afghanistan has improved since the US-led invasion. Certainly the problems facing Afghanistan today are not the same problems that faced the country in 2001; they are, perhaps, new twists in old problems. The Taliban government is gone, but the Taliban itself is not, and it remains a political force by virtue of its long reach and extraordinary brutality. Different ethnic groups can now sit around negotiating tables and debate representation—but ethnic divisions remain the primary backdrop against which all political manoeuvring is conducted. Afghanistan is certainly better in some ways, but it is unclear whether that change is durable, or whether a post-NATO Afghanistan can protect the improvements that have been made.

In that context, is Western involvement in the form a Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) in the interest of most Afghans? Karzai, who has said he will not sign the agreement—citing heavy civilian casualties and the US’ meddling in the allegedly democratic process it created—disagrees. The arguments in favour of continued Western involvement are well-known—ongoing insurgency, fragile central governance, weak institutions, al-Qaeda—but good counterinsurgency has to be more than the temporary solutions of concentrated firepower, strung together until they become permanent. If Afghanistan is to be a democracy, it must be permitted to make its own choices, right or wrong. Both Ghani and Abdullah have stated that they intend to sign the BSA if elected.

Tactical operations are easy to evaluate but strategic goals are often opaque for long periods of time. Expecting Afghanistan to be a functioning democracy right now is probably unrealistic. The things that are realistic are all short-term, and fairly precise: hold a (reasonably) legitimate election, transfer power peacefully, draw-down Western troops from the country, and sign a BSA.

The real danger here is alienation – a sense that Afghanistan is somehow impervious to improvement or positive change. That is untrue, but that perception among external actors will only be reinforced by a lengthy and fraudulent election process. What is at stake is not so much Afghanistan's present as its future. At some point, there needs to be some tangible progress, something to demonstrate that Afghanistan can, in fact, exist as a single country under democratic leadership. Perfection is not required, but if there aren't glimpses of something better than perpetual civil war, entrenched corruption, and a total lack of trust in the process, the notion of Afghanistan itself is going to be a hard sell—both internationally, and to the Afghan people.