by Hafizullah Nadiri 9 September 2020
Daoud Khan, the Afghan president before the communist coup d’état, once said that he felt the happiest when he could light his American cigarettes with Soviet matches. This metaphor, I think, is important in understanding the dilemma the Third World countries were faced with during the Cold War. It was not an easy job for them to keep the balance between two superpowers, as Daoud Khan as well failed in it. The metaphor particularly is also useful in the understanding of the current day politics in Afghanistan, including the situation of democracy there. This article will briefly trace the failure of democracy in Afghanistan to the present day.
The need for the country to be modernized has been felt along with the modern history of Afghanistan. Both statespersons and intellectuals were feeling this need. The Afghan government, starting with Abdul Rahman Khan, commenced inserting elements of modernity such as schools, a state-owned army, a taxation system, and many more to Afghan society. Afghan intellectuals circling King Amanullah Khan, however, thought that the fact that the country was under the UK protection had hindered its modernization. In 1919, after a short war, Afghanistan became an independent country. The young King who during his trip to Europe deeply felt the underdevelopment of the country started the most ambitious project of modernization of Afghanistan until the present day. The most important aspect of this project was liberalization. He fought the tradition, both Afghan and religious, to liberalize the individuals. He failed, however, and the succeeding Afghan governments never again tried to implement his project, including the communist regime.
After a long period of tranquility, the Afghan government was feeling the pressure to open the society from the groups politically active in Kabul. These groups were coming from all corners of life and ideologies that comprised rightists, centrists, and leftists. However, the failed experience of Amanullah Khan was still in the mind of the government. This time the government did not align itself with the radical groups and instead started tolerating them as long as they were not posing a threat to the government itself. During this period, superpowers were not yet extensively present in Afghanistan. After, however, it was the Cold War that controlled everything.
Centrists (liberalists), who could be traced back to Amanullah Khan’s movement, got marginalized and only two groups who had great external support remained on the ground and shaped the history: the leftists and the rightists. The former was extensively supported by the communist world, later, only by the USSR and the latter by the West, notably the US, Pakistan, Iran, and some Arab countries. Here Daoud Khan’s metaphor is still at work, even so, the elements were playing for themselves. The cigarettes and the matches were independent of the person who wanted to smoke.
To both of the above-mentioned groups, the individual did not exist. For the leftists, human beings were shaped in the economic class and for the rightists, the economic class was replaced by the religious class. For both, there were two classes: the one which was a friend and the next which was an enemy. Both, to succeed, needed to eliminate the enemy class. War was inevitable and dialogue, which is core to democracy, was absent.
The Afghanistan case shows how important international support is for a democracy to grow.
Later both the rightists and the leftists failed. The Afghan communist regime collapsed as soon as its external supporter, the USSR, fell and the rightists failed to function when their external donor stopped supported them, except for the Taliban who are still being supported.
However, the rightists were brought back to the scene by the US after it attacked Afghanistan in 2001. They were empowered because they could help the US fighting its enemy: the Taliban.
The elites in power after 2001 could not be communist because the country was occupied by a democratic country: the US. They neither could be Islamist since the US was mainly there to fight Islamists who the US believed to be behind the 9/11. But why could they not be democrats? In a democracy, the state needs to do a lot which could be summarized in respecting the basic rights of the individuals. The elites did not know how to do this. They were taught all their life how to loot and kill. So how could they stop that immediately? Besides, there was no pressure obliging them to do so. The people only remembered communism and Islamism; two regimes in which the individual was dead. While now and then people were criticizing the elites, but in the absence of a ground base pressuring it went nowhere. The only pressure elites could feel should have been coming from the US who was funding their government. However, the US was trying to avoid conflict with them and attempting to keep the situation stable, at the least for the moment. There was no mission to democratize Afghanistan and so corruption both political and economic was supported.
If the current elites are not communist, Islamist, or democrat, what ideology keeps them in power? Ethnicism. It was the war against the USSR which brought very strongly this ideology to Afghan politics. The rightists all were fighting communism under the name of Islam. The local groups which were carrying out this war on the ground, however, also needed a local identity to be distinguished from the other similar rightist groups. When the communist regime collapsed, the general Islamist ideology as the antonym to communism as well lost its value and practical use so the only ideology which could maintain the already formed rightist groups and confirm the authority of their leaders was ethnicism. The ideology was there when the US attacked the country in 2001 and was further strengthened thanks to this new environment. The elites, as they could not have the support of people via a democratic channel through which they had to listen to the individuals and try to respond to their needs, have chosen the easy way: ethnicism. Each of them had attached himself to one of the dominant ethnic groups and claimed to represent them while offered nothing in return. They, by minimizing the politics to identity, overlooked human rights, including that of the men of their own ethnic group, and justified their corruption. If men of their own ethnic group had no human rights, the elites had no obligation towards them. At worst, the individual crimes of the elites were transcended to the whole ethnic group and taken as revenge against the enemy ethnic group.
Against them, we have the Taliban who are still attached to the Cold War radical Islam used against the USSR. In this version, as was elaborated above in the case of the early rightists, there is no place for individuals either. Taliban are the dark past that needs to be forgotten for a democratic future.
Democracy in Afghanistan has failed because during the Cold War only two ideologies: communism and Islamism, had external supporters. At the moment, although the US, a democratic state, has its total influence on the country, it still needs to deal with the same groups it used before in its fight against the USSR. Lack of support by the US for democracy combined with non-democrat elites in Afghanistan, who instead of strengthening democracy divide people into the ethnic groups, are the reasons why democracy has failed there.