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September 9th, 2004
Hell of a Nation
Essay: Afghan-Style Democracy?

Building a Democracy

by Barnett R. Rubin

August 26, 2004

How does a country ravaged by war like Afghanistan recover from decades of violence and begin the process of self-government? This essay — entitled “Afghan-Style Democracy” — was written by Barnett R. Rubin, Director of Studies and Senior Fellow at the Center on International Cooperation, New York University. In November-December 2001 he served on the U.N. team at the U.N. Talks on Afghanistan in Bonn, Germany, as advisor to the Special Representative of the Secretary-General, Lakhdar Brahimi.

As Afghanistan prepares for its first-ever direct presidential elections on October 9, 2004, international actors should strive for the best but not be too disappointed at shortcomings and difficulties. Neither this election, nor the elections to the lower house of parliament, tentatively scheduled for April 2005, will make Afghanistan a fully functioning democracy. If the government, with the help of the United Nations, manages to hold the election, count the ballots, and declare a winner that all major power holders agree to recognize, that in and of itself will constitute a major achievement.

Of course democracy in Afghanistan, if it is ever consolidated, will be “Afghan-style” democracy, as President Karzai says in the WIDE ANGLE program. India, Botswana, Japan, South Africa, Brazil, Switzerland, Jamaica, Malaysia, Denmark, and the U.S. are all democracies, but they have very different systems that reflect their society and history. In some countries, major parties reflect only ideological differences, as in France, while in others parties represent religious allegiances or regional loyalties, as in Belgium or Malaysia. India balances both kinds of parties. Some countries are highly centralized, like Japan or France, and others are federal or very decentralized, like India, or Switzerland. Generally speaking, poor countries are less democratic than rich countries, and even when poor countries do become democratic, they find it harder to sustain democracy.

Photo of an Afghan man pushing a heavy cart

An Afghan man pushes a heavy cart.
Photo: Jessie Deeter

Afghanistan is ethnically diverse, but many democracies have found political means to handle ethnic conflicts. Ethnic diversity does not in itself pose an obstacle to democracy or the rule of law, especially as the religion of Islam — with its universalistic principles of justice — serves as a unifying factor across ethnic lines.Because Afghanistan is an Islamic Republic, the constitution adopted at the loya jirga that convened in December, 2003 makes Islam the state religion and requires that no law can contradict the “beliefs and provisions of Islam.” Thus these “beliefs and provisions,” as they will ultimately be interpreted by the Supreme Court of Afghanistan, form part of the country’s constitution, which no law may contradict. In Afghanistan, as in other countries, the constitution guarantees equal legal and political rights for men and women, as well as for all ethnic groups, it grants a role to both Sunni and Shi’a sects, and it protects the rights of non-Muslims — mainly the tiny Hindu and Sikh minorities — to practice their faith.

Obstacles to Democracy

The true obstacles to democracy lie in the weakness of Afghanistan’s institutions, the pervasiveness of militias and illegal trafficking in drugs, gems, timber, fuel, real estate, and other commodities that developed during the war, and the country’s absolute poverty. Twenty-five years ago Afghanistan was one of the poorest countries in the world, with a weak but seemingly stable government. Since then, major powers have spent tens of billions of dollars funding war and destroying what few assets there were. A communist regime that took power in 1978 killed tens of thousands and set off a civil war. The Soviet invasion at the end of 1979, far from stabilizing Afghanistan, plunged it into a war of resistance, massively funded by the USSR on one side, and by the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, working through Pakistan, on the other. When the USSR broke up, the communist regime fell, but from 1992 to 1996 militia factions armed by Afghanistan’s neighbors destroyed the capital, Kabul, and preyed on people everywhere. The Taliban, who took Kabul in 1996, brought a brutal security to some areas with the arms they received from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia — but Russia, Iran, India, and Central Asian countries continued to pump arms and supplies to the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance.

The quantities of weapons sent to this impoverished country with fragile institutions overwhelmed the existing political structure. In the mid-1980s, yearly imports of arms into Afghanistan amounted to more than twice the country’s entire domestic product. While it is common knowledge that Afghanistan has suffered decades of war, fewer people realize that it is one of the three or so absolutely poorest countries in the world, along with war-torn African states like Sierra Leone and Burundi. Combine this with the fact that Afghanistan has probably one of the highest ratios of modern weapons to population, and you have a country with an enormous potential for violent conflict and few resources to manage or control it.

Photo of a woman wearing a burka and walking through a crowd

A woman wearing a burka walks through a crowd.
Photo: Jessie Deeter

When President Karzai took office on December 22, 2001, he became president of a country essentially without a state. Government buildings still opened, and bureaucrats — often unpaid — attended their offices, but this barely functional apparatus could not serve as the instrument for rule by a president, elected or not. The power to enforce decisions, collect resources, provide or undermine security, punish or commit crime, belonged to groups of armed men not subject to the rule of law. The major commanders, or warlords, whom the U.S. had armed to overthrow the Taliban, agreed to support the government, but they often flouted its authority when it suited their interests. Whenever they captured control of customs posts, they kept the taxes for themselves. Despite an official ban, many encouraged drug trafficking. In some areas they fought with each other over trade routes and markets, killing civilians in the crossfire. They refused to demobilize their troops or send candidates to the new Afghan National Army. Their major leader, Defense Minister Muhammad Qasim, defied the U.N.-sponsored Bonn Accord that serves as the basis for the government. By refusing to demilitarize the capital as required he has signaled to the whole country that the gun is still supreme over the law.

Who Is In Charge?

President Karzai and his supporters say that they want to establish — or re-establish — a strong, central government in Afghanistan to introduce reforms and preside over reconstruction. Many if not most Afghans, fed up with warlords and gunmen, agree. All of the U.S.-supported warlords now have official positions as civilian governors or military generals. Some are assuming legitimate roles, but others continue to use their forces, regardless of the uniforms they now wear, for drug trafficking and preying on people. Above all, the average Afghan wants these warlords disarmed and their militia units disbanded, even if they now wear uniforms.

In at least some areas of the country local commanders may have power to intimidate and bribe people into voting their way, but there are also political issues that may win them some genuine support, such as suspicion of an overly centralized government or of ethnic domination. In the past, the government of Afghanistan was so centralized and subservient to a small elite that it paid little attention to the needs of the majority of the population, who lived in rural areas far from the capital, Kabul. Furthermore, this government tended to be dominated by leaders drawn from a narrow elite of the largest ethnic group, the Pashtuns. The opposition to Karzai says that it opposes an overly centralized government — especially a president not yet counterbalanced by a parliament or independent judiciary — and the re-imposition of Pashtun domination. In the course of the war, powerful commanders emerged from among the non-Pashtun ethnic groups, and these commanders can claim to be closer to the people’s needs, and to be protecting the rights of non-Pashtun ethnic groups, such as Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras. The government has not yet been able to prove them wrong.

The opposition to a Pashtun president presiding unchecked over an increasingly centralized, more powerful, and U.S.-backed state led some commanders and non-Pashtun political groupings to demand that parliamentary elections be held simultaneously with presidential ones. These groups believe that their local influence and authority will guarantee them predominance in the parliament and thus a chance to resist the president — they say to prevent dictatorship and ethnic domination, while their opponents say to resist reforms.

Preparing for Elections

The postponement of the parliamentary elections until six months after the presidential elections had already disquieted the opposition to Karzai. His decision to drop Fahim, the Minister of Defense, as the first of two vice-presidential running mates, consolidated their opposition. Fahim inherited the mantle of military command after the assassination of Ahmad Shah Massoud on September 9, 2001, and he led the Northern Alliance in its military alliance with the U.S.-led coalition that defeated the Taliban. By dropping him from the ticket, with last-minute U.S. support, Karzai signaled that his next administration would be different from the current one: rather than allying with and relying on the armed commanders, he would assert his authority to promote a transformation from the rule of the gun to the rule of law.

Photo of an Afghan man resting against a wall

An Afghan man rests against a wall.

It is a tribute to both the political evolution of Afghanistan and the dissuasive power of 20,000 U.S.-led coalition troops and a 6,500-soldier NATO-led security assistance force (not necessarily in that order) that the reaction was political, not military. Karzai’s chief former allies from the Northern Alliance regrouped around an alternative candidate, Yunus Qanuni, like them, a Tajik from the Panjshir Valley. Though all candidates have multi-ethnic tickets, and voters say they do not want to choose a president for ethnic reasons, the prospect of an electorate divided on ethnic and regional grounds is real. The prospect is made worse by the belated and inadequate preparations for voting among Afghan refugees in Pakistan, mostly Pashtuns, in regions where most of the population are also Pashtuns and could pose as Afghans. Without voter registration that requires some proof of citizenship, some in Afghanistan will inevitably fear that Pakistani Pashtuns will vote illegally to overwhelm the non-Pashtun candidates.

Furthermore, while these clashes within the ruling coalition threaten to undermine confidence in the process, the enemies of the new regime and its U.S. supporters — mainly the Taliban, with some help from al-Qaeda and others — have been assassinating police and electoral workers and are reported by intelligence agencies to be planning massive attacks on the election itself. Most recently they carried out an audacious attack in the center of Kabul. The Taliban bombed the office of Dyncorps, the U.S. private military contractor that provides security to President Karzai — but, as the Taliban showed, not very effectively. The fledgling Afghan National Army and police lack the capacity to deter or prevent such actions, and NATO has failed to meet the troop levels for the security force that it had promised.

This election is the final step of the process of transition that started at the U.N. Talks on Afghanistan in Bonn in November 2001. This process provided for the indirect election of an interim president and government at a loya jirga — Grand Assembly — in June 2002, the passage of a constitution by another loya jirga in December 2003, and, finally, elections this year. Some on the U.N. team thought it unwise to impose a deadline for elections when we could not predict future conditions. The unsettled conditions that now prevail — in particular the failure to demobilize the major militias — may show that these elections are premature and risk upsetting a precarious stability rather than establishing legitimate governance. But by registering in numbers that no one expected — 10 million voters, including four million women — the Afghan people have shown that they want to elect a government that is accountable to them. Enabling them to succeed — which will guarantee that terrorists will never be able to reestablish themselves in Afghanistan, will require a robust effort to provide security for the election and assure that it is fair. More than that, it will require sustained aid, and military and security presence for years, to help the Afghans build a state that can carry out the legal decisions of any government they elect.

Barnett R. Rubin is the Director of Studies and Senior Fellow at the Center on International Cooperation, New York University. He is the author of THE FRAGMENTATION OF AFGHANISTAN (Yale, 2002) and many other works on the country. In November and December, 2001 he served on the U.N. team at the U.N. Talks on Afghanistan in Bonn, Germany, as advisor to the Special Representative of the Secretary General, Lakhdar Brahimi.

  • K. Arsala

    As an Afghan I think there are very few among the foreigners that can match the insight and deep knowledge of Afghans and Afghanistan compare to Dr. Rubin. The other non-Afghan expert on Afghanistan might be Ambassador Peter Tomsen that can be called a true friend of all Afghans and Afghanistan. As an Afghan thank you both for your accurate observations of Afghans and Afghanistan and I as an Afghan truely appreciate your friendship with Afghans.

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