Afghan democracy: Myths and promises

Enduring Orientalist perceptions of Afghanistan must not detract from the country’s third democratic experience.

Afghanistan can become an inspiration for the region's fledgling and struggling democracies, writes Moradian [AFP]

The long queues of Afghan men and women across the country during the April 5 elections directly challenged many assumptions about Afghans and the prospects of democratisation of mutli-ethnic, conflicted and Islamic societies.   US President Barack Obama’s characterisation of the unexpectedly high turnout of Afghan voters, as “historic“, was a rare occasion when Afghans are commended for their civic courage.

The Afghans are universally known for their warrior-like character. Former UK Defence Secretary Liam Fox succinctly reflected the widely-held view of Afghanistan when he described it as “a broken 13th century country“. Such an Orientalist’s construction of Afghan national identity and character are not confined to Western capitals and mindsets.

For former Pakistani President General Ayub Khan, Afghanistan had “no intrinsic strength” and was created as “a buffer because of a clash of interests during the 19th century between the Russian and British empires”. More interestingly, in his view, “the Afghans were not Muslims nearly as they were opportunists”. Afghanistan has also been deprived of its rich cultural heritage as the home of many great Persian innovators, artists and scholars – icons now monopolised by Tehran.   

Such views not only are inaccurate historical or anthropological readings, but often shape policies towards Afghanistan. The debates over Afghanistan’s readiness for modern state institutions, compatibility with democratic governance, and the identity of the Taliban were determined to a large degree by this essentialist view of Afghans. The early optimistic views on the possibility of building a democratic and modern Afghan state have been overshadowed by those who regard democratic state-building as a futile exercise and a cause for prolonging the Afghan crisis.

‘Armchair international experts’

Indian External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid described such sceptics as “armchair international experts” on Afghanistan, “who say that that the main challenge for Afghanistan’s future is its heterogeneous character, its ancient tribal society, and its many different ethnicities”.

Washington’s refusal to proscribe the Taliban as a “terrorist organisation” and Islamabad’s enduring strategic investment in the Taliban were partly driven by a view of the Taliban as an indigenous movement. As late as 2013, postponing the 2014 presidential election and the change of the Afghan Constitution were seriously considered in important Western circles as part of an “incentive package” for the Taliban.

Washington’s refusal to proscribe the Taliban as a ‘terrorist organisation’ and Islamabad’s enduring strategic investment in the Taliban were partly driven by a view of the Taliban as an indigenous movement. As late as 2013, postponing the 2014 presidential election and the change of the Afghan Constitution were seriously considered in important Western circles as part of an ‘incentive package’ for the Taliban.

The pervasive corruption of the Afghan government and political elite was seen as a manifestation of an inherently corrupt culture and the ensuing abandonment of “good governance” from the 2010 agenda.

Last week’s election revives the debate over the prospects of democratisation of the Islamic world, particularly considering the growing “anti-democratisation” trends. The Middle East is burning in sectarian violence amid an “Arab Winter”, while Central Asia is becoming “Despotistan”; and Pakistan is sliding fast towards “Talibanistan”. These trends have converted two fundamentally opposed ideologies: The Orientalists and the Salafists who both believe and advocate the incompatibility of Muslim societies with democracy.

A functioning Afghan democracy will challenge those who question the possibility of democratisation of the Islamic world.  If Afghanistan, as a highly conflicted, tribal and conservative society, can move towards democratisation, then the more stable and prosperous Islamic nations would have an even better chance of success. Democratisation of the Islamic world is not Francis Fukuyama’s “End of History” panacea, but rather Churchill’s characterisation as “the worst form of government except the others that have been tried”.    

Afghanistan provides remarkable examples of the history of democratic struggle and the subjugation of Islamic reform movements to external powers.  Afghanistan was the first country in the Islamic world that introduced “constitutional government” and heralded many social reforms in the early 20th century. During the reign of the reformist Afghan King Amnanullah Khan, the first Afghan constitution called “Nezamnama” was adopted in 1923.

The constitution incorporated equal rights and individual freedoms. Afghanistan’s second democratisation attempt lasted almost a decade (1964-73) where the country adopted a kind of constitutional monarchy based on the region’s most enlightened constitution.

Afghanistan’s first and second democratisation attempts were, however, derailed by a combination of factionalised elites and external interference, not by its ancient tribal nature or Islamic identity. In fact, Afghanistan’s colourful cultural heritage and its approach to religion helped promote universal values and inclusive politics.

Early example of cosmopolitan city

The city of Kabul was one of the early examples of cosmopolitan cities when it was the home of Zoroastrian, Buddhist, Hindu and later Muslim and Jewish communities. The Greco-Bakhtaria civilisation was perhaps the first model of hybrid political system of East-West more than 2,000 years ago. The empress consort of the Timurid Empire, Goharshad, made Herat a centre of art, literature, architecture and poetry in the 15th century. The founder of Islam’s most pragmatic school of jurisprudence, the Hanafi School came from a Kabuli family. Khurassan preceded the modern nation-state of Afghanistan. 

Afghanistan’s third democratisation attempt confronts two formidable challenges that derailed the previous two efforts, however, the current endeavour is owned by millions of citizens who came to vote on April 5 despite the Taliban’s army of suicide bombers, profound disappointment with the Afghan government, and the cloud of uncertainty over the future of the country.

Notwithstanding these challenges, there is a real possibility that a more united and responsible political elite in Kabul and a more favourable external environment can make Afghanistan’s third democratic experience become irreversible and sustained. If so, Afghanistan will become an inspiration for the region’s fledgling and struggling democracies.    

Davood Moradian is the director-general of the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies and former chief of programmes in President Hamid Karzai’s office and chief policy adviser to Afghanistan’s ministry of foreign affairs.