Afghanistan's post-Taliban experiment with democracy, deficient and imperfect as it has been, is increasingly coming under grave threats from both within and outside the country. A democratic political system that would promote pluralism, equitable distribution of national power and the right to self-determination to diverse people of the country were always touted and correctly so to be the elusive panacea to Afghanistan's ills. No doubt the road to bringing about and crafting such a system, one that would be practical and functioning given the tough realities of society and geography of this country, would have been long and arduous. However, what we see is the unfortunate fact that before the democratic enterprise in Afghanistan can bear fruition, the pillars of support are being dismantled one by one.
The insurgency being vigorously pursued by Taliban and their allies has grown over years to constitute an existential threat to the prevailing nascent democratic order. Parallel to that, the American and Western rush to find an exit strategy is gradually casting a shadow over the viability of Afghanistan's democratic experience in the immediate future. The leadership and the current political class have largely failed to traverse this treacherous road, unable to respond adequately and appropriately to the barrage of internal and external threats and challenges and thus emboldening the enemies and alienating the foreign allies.
The fact is that the Taliban insurgency's revival and the momentum it has increasingly gained in recent years is not owed to a great national sentiment about resistance and jihad as was the case during the Soviet occupation, but it is rather due to the shortcomings of the government of Afghanistan and its foreign allies in offering a better alternative to what militants have offered. Therefore, political leadership is the key to navigating this troubled ship through these perilous times. What Afghanistan desperately needs, among other things, is a competent and responsible political leadership. The imperative role of an effective and competent national leadership has time and again been raised but the urgency of the issue, perhaps, has never been as acute as present when the future of the country seems to be hanging in balance.
A resuscitated and revitalized national political leadership, at the current juncture, should be able to provide the country, the nation and the country's exasperated foreign allies with a fresh start. In essence, what the country desperately needs is a grand paradigm shift towards fundamentally altering the people-leadership relationship. A revitalized national leadership must be able to assemble diverse ethnicities, groups, factions and even the Taliban under a unified system that respects their rights and aspirations and genuinely addresses their grievances. These are critical tasks which a revitalized national leadership must tackle and tackle successfully to steer the country through this difficult times. Whether Mr. Karzai takes it upon himself to break away from the string of past failures and provide this sort of new leadership or someone else, the outcome should be a national leadership that is able to rise to these grand threats and challenges that confront the country.
In the absence of such a grand and, admittedly, difficult paradigm shift, our nation will further descend into chaos and fragment along the lines of communal and linguistic identities. The Taliban, in their targeting of tribal elders and communal leaders throughout the southern and northern swaths of the country – killing of General Daud Daud in Takhar as an example - have shown that they are indeed pursuing an agenda of polarizing and breaking up the country and society along ethnic and communal lines. This sort of dangerous polarization of our society and polity might further continue while hopes for a peaceful, tolerant and democratic society will be shattered beyond repair.
Western thinking towards Afghanistan has undergone a dramatic and tragic change in recent years with a shift of focus from a greater objective of helping Afghanistan build itself as a nation to seeking a relative "stability" at the expense of democracy and legitimate aspirations of its diverse people. The west's main concern is being stripped down to preventing Afghanistan from yet again becoming a breeding ground for international terrorism. The recent talks between Americans and some leaders of the Taliban, one of them a close aide and confidant of Mullah Omar, is making it clear that even Americans are slowly becoming of the view that sweeping concessions need to be given to Taliban in return for dragging them to the negotiation table. Whether the negotiations will bear any fruit or not – the dominant view is that they will not – the fact is that the very existence of Afghan state is in grave danger. As long as the country suffers on account of absence of a revitalized and capable national leadership; one that approaches the issue of Taliban with rationality and sound judgment, the status quo will remain so and even will deteriorate further.
A revitalized and resuscitated national leadership, in addition to winning the trust of the common people should make investments in national programs that strengthen democratic institutions, sustain the viability of the state, bring rapid political and economic development and take effective steps towards alleviating poverty and unemployment. The elections in Afghanistan have proved to be issues of national and international consequence. The presidential elections of 2009 and parliamentary elections of 2010 were in fact debacles of the highest order bordering on farcical theater and shattering the faith of all in the political system. Elections are needed to be an exercise of national will and an instrument in the hands of people to gauge, reward or punish the leaders. The debacle of last two elections worked to strip the system of its legitimacy and ruined the perceptions of the people towards the government and the state. These elections were in fact wasted opportunities that could instead build rapport and a sense of mutual trust between the people and the state. The result has of course been the opposite.
The message is that the country desperately needs a major correction of its course before the time runs out. Already, the abundant initial goodwill of the international community towards Afghanistan has been squandered and the country cannot afford any more loss. Strategic thinking and in the process giving weight to the legitimate desires and aspirations of people on the part of a revitalized national leadership is the only option in front of Afghanistan. If this window of opportunity is closed and the opportunities squandered, this decade of democracy will be just another decade of democracy that faded in the pages of Afghan history as quickly as it appeared.