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Destined to Fail

Flawed policies, formulated without factoring in ground realities, made establishing democracy in Afghanistan a doomed initiative

by Khaled Ahmed

Writing in Democracy and State Building Experiment in Post-Taliban Afghanistan, author Saira Aquil analyzes the U.S.-led intervention’s failure to establish a stable democratic state in Kabul by examining the state-building and democratization processes initiated there. Studying the multi-causal factors responsible for the failure, she notes the importance of the failed state quandary, particularly for Western nations, due to the direct nexus between such states and the national security of developed countries. In this regard, the primary goal of the international community’s state- and democracy-building initiative is to make a failed or failing state successful.

Afghanistan, writes, Aquil, entered the 19th century as a politically, technically, and religiously disunited, heterogeneous tribal state. The state suffered from internal rivalries, differences, and turmoil on the throne in the first half of the 19th century, as in the case of Amir Dost Mohammad Khan, a Mohammadzai Pashtun supplanted by Shah Shuja after being ousted from power in 1839 by the British. Shuja’s value to the British lay in him signing an agreement allowing Britain to determine the parameters of Afghan foreign policy and train the Afghan army. The bonhomie was short-lived, with Khan returning to power in 1843.

Throughout its history, powerful tribal leaders have transformed Afghanistan into a segmentary state comprised of a cluster of tribes. The state system has represented and served the interests of the ruling Pashtuns, with the ethnic factor of the majority determining political power at the expense of the minority. Amir Abdur Rahman Khan, who ruled Afghanistan from 1880-1901, sought to reverse this by establishing a centralized system of rule. However, the Afghan state was never able to completely entrench itself in heterogeneous society, with independent structures of local authority operating in parallel to the state and blocking the realization of an autonomous state. Religious clerics and tribal chieftains also restrained the political power of the ruling elite.

Resurgence of the Taliban

The fall of the Taliban regime and the rise of rival ethnic groups after the U.S. intervention shifted the power balance in Afghanistan in favor of the Northern Alliance, alienating Pashtuns and fostering resentment against the new government. Although the induction of Pashtuns in the cabinet addressed this grievance to some extent, it did not change the views developed among Pashtuns in rural areas, paving the way for more violence and insurgency.

Scholars like Ali Jalali, Adam Roberts, and Gilles Dorronsoro have identified the absence of state institutions in the eastern and southern regions of Afghanistan, rather than ethnicity, as the most significant cause of the insurgency. A detailed study of the NATO-led Operation Enduring Freedom supports their position. Interveners made alliances with local tribal leaders and focused on areas with the least resistance. Intelligence reports, as a consequence, assumed the Taliban was a ‘spent force.’ This assessment proved false as subsequent events unfolded.

According to Aquil, the U.S. and other donors provided direct and indirect assistance to the Afghan government for reconstruction and development, with the former aimed at enhancing the capacity of the core administration to impose and execute budgets while regulating external aid in accordance with changing needs of the country. This policy, however, could not succeed in the face of corruption in the government from patronage networks. Ministries failed to make transparent and mechanized financial systems to manage the flow of cash or development aid. Fraud, leakage, and misuse of funds added to the problem.

Kabul’s goal was to generate revenue from its mineral sector, with policymakers claiming it would contribute economic growth and human development and reduce dependency on foreign aid. The U.S. government and the donor community, however, understood that the benefits of mineral wealth depended on security, substantial investment for exploration, infrastructure, and approval of laws that faced significant delays. They knew that it would take years for the revenue generated from mining to add to the GDP and kept pushing for Kabul to increase tax collection from 5 percent to 15 percent of GDP—a promise that the Karzai regime made at a Tokyo donor conference but failed to fulfil.

According to social and cultural anthropologist Antonio De Lauri: “In Afghanistan the phenomenon of corruption is seen as a way of governance that works rather than governance per se.” It was a mode of survival in the war-torn society. Afghan citizens gave money to state officials to get public services which were their basic rights; corruption was affecting their daily lives. Pervasive corruption made Afghanistan the third most corrupt state in the world in 2012. The corruption of state officials made the government dysfunctional and aided Taliban propaganda, with one general describing corruption as an existential strategic threat to Afghanistan.

Political solution

The eventual failure to establish democratic structures was embedded in the Bush administration’s initial strategy of rebuilding Afghanistan from scratch, based on a parochial national interest to change the regime and dismantle the Al Qaeda and Taliban network. Its minimalist approach toward state-and-democracy-building lowered the standard of the project and the exclusionist policy created an authority vacuum in the country. That vacuum resulted in the deterioration of security and the resurgence of the Taliban, which in turn caused the external power to speed up the formation of the state’s coercive apparatus (Afghan National Security forces). The appointment of state agents in peripheral areas came at a late stage of the project, proving disadvantageous, with the ensuing eruption of violence only increasing the Karzai regime’s weakness in establishing the writ of the state. The reason for this was a top-down approach, without any involvement of locals in winning the trust of ex-militia men and providing them with security guarantees. Subsequently, the Obama administration, after an extensive review of the Afghan policy, made a shift to take more comprehensive action against the Taliban.

The shifts and turns in U.S. policies showed their limitations. They failed to end the conflict and counter-violence—the number of civilian casualties after a decade was similar to those of the early years. Although the invading forces intensified efforts to counter the Taliban movement, it not only survived, but also increased in intensity, with informal governance structures in the southern, northern and eastern provinces of the country. The U.S. expectedly tried to meet the challenge through force by enhancing the number of coalition troops. This policy was a product of further militarizing the state-building process.

The U.S.’s emphasis on the military option amidst a growing reluctance to continue keeping its troops in Afghanistan in the waning years of the Obama administration showed that humanitarian concerns and public welfare was of secondary importance. The state-building process was confined to controlling the mechanism of violence and security, with a larger part of financial and logistics resources diverted to the creation of the state’s coercive apparatus. The U.S.-led NATO forces also introduced private militias, primarily because of an apprehension about the weaknesses and fragility of the Afghan National Defense and Security forces. The CIA-managed militia, in particular, had a bad track record of human rights in the war against the Taliban and other extremist groups.

Another fault in the whole project was the involvement of too many parties, with differing agendas, boosting a ‘lack of coordination.’ NATO allies disagreed over rebuilding policies; some preferred state-building while others prioritized democratization. The U.S. alone had a representative; an ambassador; a force commander; as well as defense and foreign secretaries overseeing the same project.

The Taliban’s total exclusion from the process, meanwhile, ensured some Afghans were excluded from the electoral process, compromising an important aspect of democracy. It was further compromised when limitations in the electoral process and electoral malpractices of state agents became evident. Security concerns reduced voter turnout and the state failed to set up polling stations in Taliban- controlled areas in southern and eastern regions, with fraudulent elections further disaffecting the legitimacy of the state’s electoral institutions. Voters were disillusioned.

The U.S. believed in a ‘quick victory’ against the Taliban and Al Qaeda, thinking the international coalition could best tackle the task. But their house of cards was too weak to withstand resistance. The Washington-style liberal democracy did not work in Afghanistan, as Obama eventually realized, seeking an “honorable” exit, whatever the future of the country may be. The will and welfare of the people was always a chimera.

By the end of Obama’s second term (2013-2017), it was evident that political solution was the best option available to solve the security problem. Aggressive use of airpower, a troop surge, and a nexus with the anti-Taliban forces had failed to end the war or encourage the democracy-building experiment. Expectedly, there seemed no respect of any deal from the Taliban, whose objective was jihad—not any open-ended compromise or deal with the invading forces or a government supported by them.

Too late

Despite being aided by its allies in NATO from the very onset of the Afghan war, the U.S. remained the principal intervener and dominated and drove both the military action and the state- and democracy-building processes. Its attempts to establish a liberal, democratic state in war-torn Afghanistan failed due to flaws in the processes. Contradictions and ambiguities undermined the spirit of the experiment, with conflicting objectives of continuing the war on terrorism and building democratic institutions paving the way for failures. The imbalance in the power structure it developed in Afghanistan was evident. Local circumstances and challenges also hindered the experiment because they changed the dynamics of bargaining power in favor of the new state elite that emerged in the process. Furthermore, for almost a decade in Afghanistan, the U.S. persistently kept the Taliban out of the democratization process and refused to negotiate with them under any circumstances. This was a mistake as not only was the U.S. unable to quell the insurgency, but the Taliban represented an intrinsic part of Pashtun traditional thinking. Eventually, the U.S. realized this and began trying to arrive at some sort of negotiated settlement with them. Unfortunately, it was too late to make any difference in how the matter was eventually wrapped up, with the Taliban back in power and the U.S. leaving Kabul without any formal plan on how to handle the hasty exit.

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