Skip navigation

Foreign Policy Centre

Ideas for a fairer world

Articles and Briefings

Where now for Afghan 'democracy'?

By Anna Owen.

A version of this article first appeared in Progress:

http://www.progressonline.org.uk/Magazine/article.asp?a=5001

Democracy has failed in Afghanistan. That statement can't make easy reading for Barack Obama, Gordon Brown or indeed anyone that believes in democracy. But has democracy failed irreparably and irreversibly in Afghanistan, or was it simply always the wrong solution? What are the reasons for the current political situation? And what are the implications of this for Afghanistan itself, for the region and for the international military, political and civilian strategies that are currently being pursued there?

It is true that efforts to elect an Afghan President democratically via elections that were fair and free from fraud and intimidation seem to have failed. The UN–backed Electoral Complaints Commission recounted 10 percent of ballot boxes and discounted 600 of them; investigated 600 allegations of fraud; threw out more than 1 million votes for Karzai; and finally awarded Karzai just 49.7% of the vote. No doubt the international community was collectively wringing its hands both before the election, and in the interregnum before the aborted run-off, hoping for a clean, legitimate outcome, and probably, for an Abdullah victory, which would have signalled a new start for Afghanistan, renewed efforts to root out corruption and an improved relationship with the international community. It was perhaps no surprise then that huge international efforts were made to improve security and create an optimal enabling environment for the election. Despite claims of reduced violence and a higher voter turnout in some areas than might have otherwise have been the case though, an Abdullah victory is nothing more than a 'what if'now.

So, how did Afghan 'democracy' end up at this point? In 2001, when US and UK forces invaded, their mission, quickly accomplished, was to oust the Taliban from Kabul, and with it the opportunity for al Qaeda to use the country as a safe haven. It was decided that introducing a Western model of democracy, symbolised by free and fair elections, would be the best route to a Taliban-free and thus an Al Qaeda-free Afghanistan. In the intervening years however, the US and UK's strategic and resource focus on Iraq has meant that efforts to bring economic development to Afghanistan and to effectively quash the Taliban insurgency have been unsuccessful. As a direct result, the insurgency has grown since 2003 in both strength and depth and al Qaeda have simply decamped over the border into Pakistan.

Despite this, a 'democratisation' process, spearheaded by elections, with limited attempts at institution building, has continued since 2001, with very varying degrees of success. Critics observe that, in Afghanistan, as in other countries undergoing democratic transitions, multi-party elections should occur towards the end of a substantial period of democracy-building, rather than the beginning. And key to the successful entrenchment of democratic principles is a sense of national unity and economic development. For a country like Afghanistan, which has, for most of its history, been economically poor, ravaged by war and is characterised by a highly decentralised tribal societal structure, installing a strong government at the centre through the mechanism of elections seems a curious choice of priority. It is perhaps unsurprising then, that democratic processes are sometimes abused by those in power for their own gain. As Paddy Ashdown has asserted, this is not the fault of Karzai, though he may have many faults, but rather that of the international community for attempting to patch onto a society a wholly unsuitable Western model of democracy. Using the recent elections as an accurate 'measure' of Afghan 'democracy' therefore, seems ill-advised at best. The UK government has been at pains to emphasise recently that the British mission there is not aiming to install democracy. This is almost definitely because of falling UK public support for the mission and to combat accusations of 'mission creep'. The introduction of this form of democracy however has led, in large part, to the situation which the international community and the Afghan people now find themeslves facing in Afghanistan.

So, what options are there in terms of moving forward?

The first, and starkest, is for the international community to simply withdraw from Afghanistan altogether. You don't have to look far to find advocates of this view. This argument tends to believe that 'this is a war we cannot win'and draws on the historical failure of foreign forces in the country. This argument also tends to believe that the presence of foreign forces is heightening levels of insecurity rather than bringing increased security. There are as yet few detailed analyses of the consequences of withdrawal for Afghan democracy, for the region and for the world. This argument also doesn't often articulate whether political and civilian efforts should also cease, or whether they should continue to the same extent in the absence of a military presence. However, given the UN's recent abandonment of Kabul citing heightened insecurity, this seems difficult to envisage.

The second option is to 'carry on as we are', or at least with a slightly adapted version of our current political and military strategy, but perhaps with an increased number of military troops. This is widely expected to be the main feature of the new strategy soon to be announced by Obama. One thing is certainly clear: the current strategy in all its spheres – military, political and development – does not seem to be working. Not many people would argue therefore that something does need to change and the extent to which Obama's new strategy appears to differ from the current one will be crucial.

There is a middle ground between these two positions which gives us a third option. According to the FT's Gideon Rachman, the views of the Pakistani journalist and author Ahmed Rashid "are now so widely sought that he has really become a player." And it is easy to see why – Rashid's thesis is an interesting and compelling one. According to Rachman, Rashid is "seriously worried that the Americans are having cold feet and will step back - and that Pakistan will be destablised by a resurgence of the Afghan Taliban." Furthermore, "…he paints a hair-raising picture of what would happen if the US steps away. He forsees a renewed civil war in Afghanistan, with the Afghan Taliban backed by the Pakistani army, battling it out with the forces of Karzai and the Northern Alliance, backed by Iran. Taking a step further back, the Chinese would be standing in the Afghan-Pakistani-Talib corner, while the Indians backed the other side. The Pakistanis meanwhile would find themselves suffering from the Taliban blowback, caused by the very Afghan war they were sponsoring." Whether or not we accept this premise in its entirety, if withdrawal is not an option, what to do?

Rashid described his 'minimalist state' approach in a recent piece for the Washington Post. Prior to 1979 and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, he says, the country was peaceful, albeit poor, with a subsistence economy but agricultural jobs for everyone. The government, although only a 'bare-bones' monarchical structure, worked well because it was strong enough to maintain law and order but did not undermine the autonomy of the tribes. This structure was subsequently destroyed by 30 years of war.

In 2002, Rashid tried to convince the Bush administration that it should be looking to re-build a similar 'minimalist state', as it would be strong enough to keep al Qaeda and the Taliban out, whilst at the same time peacefully overseeing the tribes. Back then, Richard Holbrooke estimated that this might cost $5 billion a year over 10 years. Today, Rashid estimates that it would take between $10-15 billion a year and take tens of thousands more troops. As this is unlikely to happen, and knowing the power of public opinion, Rashid suggests that the first thing to be done is for US and European people to be told the truth by their governments: that mistakes have been made in Afghanistan; the minimalist state should have been re-built, but it has not; the terrorist threat has grown and spread throughout Africa and Europe. Second, the minimalist state should be re-built as quickly as possible, focusing on agriculture, job creation and justice. This will take at least 2-3 years. Third, more aid and more time must be given to Pakistan to help fight both the Pakistani and the Afghan Taliban, as well as al Qaeda in the mountainous border areas. Finally, Afghan partners on the ground need to be cultivated for the international community to work with, so they are not viewed as occupying forces. This means, crucially, forcing Karzai to create a government that includes all the leading opposition figures.

Afghanistan is a unique country in an extraordinary position. It is in this context that the international community finds itself trying to finish what it started in 2001. It has, at the very least, a moral obligation, and at most, a security imperative, to finish it. Hopefully Obama's new strategy will include features of the Rashid thesis and preferably, the end result will reflect the Afghan context and serve the needs of the Afghan people. If it doesn't, it will be doomed to fail. It is not inconceivable that Afghanistan will remain an ally in the fight against terrorism, even if it does not become a democracy in the Western tradition. It is 8 years since Al Qaeda changed the world on 9/11 and there is now an urgent need for the West to start changing its understandings of how to use democratic principles, if not democratisation itself, to best counter the threat posed by terrorism. Just as urgent, Western leaders also need to start changing the way they communicate with their publics, to find better ways of explaining why this is necessary. Losing the war against terrorism abroad would be catastrophic, but losing the argument at home about how to do it could be fatal.