Voting for failure in Afghanistan

November 22, 2009 at 2:28 am (Uncategorized) (, )

By Stephen Kinzer

By forcing a flawed model of democracy on Afghans, the US has made Afghanistan less stable and less democratic

The fiasco of the elections in Afghanistan has been widely lamented. Most laments focus on a single obvious fact: by winning a new term through fraud at the polls, President Hamid Karzai has weakened his legitimacy, endangered the already tepid support he enjoys in Washington DC, and handed the Taliban another piece of evidence, if one is needed, that his regime is corrupt.

How could this result have been prevented, or how might it be prevented in the future? A litany of answers has emerged. Elections would be fairer if the countryside were more secure, if polling places were monitored by impartial observers, if votes were counted openly.

These answers miss a fundamental point. American leaders pressed for this election because they believe that elections and democracy always go hand-in-hand. Their formulation is painfully simple. Countries that have competitive, multi-party elections are democratic; those that do not are undemocratic. No experience in recent times disproves this facile assumption more fully than the Afghan election. By pushing Afghanistan toward competitive elections, the US has made it not more, but less democratic.

As the Afghan quagmire deepened, American leaders focused on the fact that Afghanistan has no strong central government. From a Western perspective, this seems like an obvious flaw. In Western countries, strong central power is a prerequisite for statehood. Blinded to cultural and historical differences, Americans assumed that the same formula must apply to Afghanistan. They set out to create a strong central government where none had ever existed.

For centuries Afghanistan was governed by a system in which clans, tribes and regions made most of their own decisions, and the regime in Kabul had little more than the power of moral suasion. Under this system, Afghans enjoyed a deep and widely accepted form of democracy. Decisions were made by local and regional councils – shuras and jirgas – that functioned by consensus, not majority rule.

Westerners accept competition as a fundamental part of life, in politics as in business. This means there will always be losers. Western cultures have largely assimilated the idea that it is acceptable to lose; one can live with the result and hope to win sometime in the future. Not all cultures believe this. In some, losing is a devastating humiliation, even one that can justify a violent response. That is why some countries developed decision-making systems based on consensus rather than win-or-lose competition. Much trouble in today’s world has come from the desire to impose Western-style democracy on societies that had spent centuries developing systems better adapted to their own cultures.

In traditional Afghan society, the only way to become a decision-maker was to show wisdom and win the community’s trust. Having a great deal of money or a private army was not enough to give someone a powerful voice in governing.

Under the electoral system that the US has imposed on Afghanistan, the opposite is true. Elections there have given warlords, drug traffickers and other thugs a chance they did not have before. No longer must an Afghan win the respect of his peers to be entrusted with decision-making power. Guns, money, and a willingness to murder rivals are the new qualifications.

No system of government – electoral democracy, consensus rule, socialism, fascism – is intrinsically good or bad. Nations choose political systems because they provide things that are intrinsically good, like security and prosperity. In the West, electoral democracy provides those things, so it is reasonable that Westerners embrace it. Elsewhere, however, electoral democracy has different results. Afghanistan is a vivid example.

Blinded to cultural differences and wedded to the one-size-fits-all, “world is flat” concept, the West has pushed competitive elections onto Afghanistan. Its assumption is: this system works for us, so it will work for everyone. Elections, however, have helped rob Afghans of democracy.

A wiser policy for the US would be to accept Afghanistan’s weak-central-government tradition and try to revive the old decentralized, consensus-based system. So much of that system has already been smashed, however, that rebuilding it is nearly impossible. This is one of the tragedies of America’s misbegotten “democracy promotion” project.

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