Exclusive for the Daily Outlook Afghanistan
NATO policymakers in 2001 wanted to drive the Taliban out of Afghanistan and bring in a ship load of democracy activists to install a new brave democracy in the country but it would have been helpful if NATO military commanders reminded them...there is no water in Afghanistan. It is only mountains. The Soviets brought in a boatload of communists and the boat sunk in the mountains of Afghanistan. How can NATO's ship of democracy survive in the mountains? It is already sinking.
History and culture determines what form of government a society will have. In Afghanistan communist regime of 1980s failed disastrously because communist philosophy was incompatible with and right out in collision with Afghani culture, traditions and history. Afghan Democracy today is a sinking ship, and it too will fail like Afghan democracy did during reforms of 1920s, because practices of democratic government are not in line with traditions of Afghani culture and history and other socio-economic preconditions essential to survival and functioning of democracy doesn't exist in Afghanistan today. To know future of Afghanistan one needs to study its past.
In countries where practices and values of its government is not consistent with cultural values of society the government is doomed to failure. Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and subsequent installation of a communist puppet regime in the country created a dangerous divide between religious, Islamic values of Afghan culture—in Afghanistan people look at the world through prism of religion and tribal affiliations- and what they perceived to be a godless communist regime set upon destroying their religion, cultures values and fabric of their tribal society. The government sent girls to school to be educated in direct conflict with tribal cultural traditions of the countryside population—they believed role of women and girls is to stay at home and be housewives and opposed any government that gave women and girls access to education. The countryside population has throughout its history maintained this cultural belief and cultural practice.
The outcome of described inconsistency between egalitarian communist beliefs of the government and religious practices and tribal cultural values of the society produced armed rebellion on behalf of the population. The population had decided to destroy the communist government at all costs. It resulted in the soviet forces withdrawing from Afghanistan in 1989—ten years after invasion— and three years later communist regime of Afghanistan collapsed. During its ten years of occupation the soviets forces had put the Afghan communist regime on life support, giving it much needed firepower, manpower and financial support. Ooh no! , the Soviets gave Afghans a communist boat and they destroy it in mountains of their landlocked country— I have an idea, let's give them a ship of democracy this time! This line of thought might have been running through head of then U.S president George W. Bush.
But preconditions of democracy that are vital for functioning of a democratic government do not exist in Afghanistan. A national culture of tolerance, an industrial economy and a large and well-educated middle class need to exist in a country before democracy can work.
Tribal culture of Afghanistan and infighting between several ethnic groups that make up the population in wars following departure of the Soviets have severely divided the population along ethnic-tribal lines. Every ethnic group has its own ethnic culture; there is no national culture in the country let alone a national culture of acceptance and tolerance of other communities. If the ethnic groups go at war with one another now and then, as they have done in the past 20 years, is that a culture of tolerance?
It is clear there is no national culture in Afghanistan to unite all the different ethnic groups and bring them together around a common purpose. The country has not had a national culture throughout its history, in the past the country has always been governed by dynasties, kings, conquering armies, medieval empires and modern rulers. In countries with a national cultural tradition of tolerance a minority group waits patiently for election time to come, in the mean time working peacefully through associations and civil society to convince the majority of the people that its views are correct, in the hope of influencing their vote at the ballot box.
Afghanistan has traditionally solved its problems through bullets, not ballots. The Taliban, known for their Islamic fundamentalist beliefs and practices, ruled the country during late 90s and 2001 and delivered swift and harsh punishment for those alleged to have committed crimes. Their method of punishment made them popular with large majority of the population.
That is what cultural tradition of the Afghanistan appreciates: swift and harsh punishment of criminals, there is no national culture or national culture of tolerance as it exists in developed countries. In short, these cultural practices are in conflict with what democratic practices of a democratic government require. Cultural precondition for democracy to work in Afghanistan does not exist. The country is in economic crisis.
Afghanistan's little infrastructure was destroyed during the civil war following departure of the soviets from Afghanistan. What little infrastructure NATO built after the takeover of the country is being destroyed by the ongoing war. Alarming 35% unemployment rate (2010 est), disastrous 30.5% inflation rate (2009 est), per capita wealth of $1000 (2009 est), World Banks measure of how easy it is to setup, operate and close down a business ranks Afghanistan 167th in the world. 36% of the population (2009 est) is living below the poverty line of $2 a day.
All of these statistics tell one story: Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world with no middle class. Either a person is rich or poor, there is no middle. Literacy rate for Afghanistan is 43% for men and 12.6% for women, compared to average of 99% for men and women in developed countries with functioning democratic governments. Democracy requires a large and well-educated middle class to work—Economic precondition necessary for democracy to work does not exist in Afghanistan where more than half the population cannot read or write or when one third of the population lives on less than $2 a day.
It is not only the people who are suffering from misfortunes brought about by an economic crisis, the government too is unable to pay its bills for public goods and services it delivers. The country has GDP of $29.88 Billion dollars. According to Afghanistan's Ministry of defence size of the Afghan National Army (ANA) will be expanded to 260,000 active service personnel, combined with Afghan National Police (ANP) total size of security forces will reach 400,000. A recent report by The Economist magazine indicates "The annual cost of Afghan security forces after 2014 has been estimated at $6-8 billion". Without other government expenditures defence budget will be between 20% and 26.7% of GDP in today's dollars. This is clearly not sustainable. Developed countries spend on average between 1-2% of their GDP on defence.
Creating a liberal constitution, founded on principles of 18th century European traditions of enlightenment and liberalism, for a tribal society where more than half population cannot read or write and expecting them to vote in free and fair elections is irresponsible at best and idiotic at worst. You cannot find a more perfect example of inconsistency between cultural traditions of society and values and practices of the government, the same sort of inconsistency that produced popular revolt of the 1980s against the communist regime of Afghanistan.
The link that bonds democracy and communism is their shared intellectual origin.
Before 18th century Europe had been devastated by religious wars, in 18th century a new intellectual, scientific and cultural movement called Enlightenment developed in response to those religious wars. Since religious revelations and beliefs had caused great misery on people at the time, this new movement sought to reject divine revelations as a source of knowledge and sought comfort in power of reason. Encouraged by extraordinary advances in physics this new movement argued that only reason could free human kind from superstition and religious authoritarianism.
18th century became dominated by ideas of the enlightenment and became known as age of reason. This age began in 1620 and ended in 1790 in French revolution.
This age established the intellectual framework for systems of government and economics of later times amongst them communism, representative democracy and liberalism.
One intellectual product of the Age of Reason was creation of liberalism. Political liberalism as a system of government advocated liberty for all, free markets, private property, security of persons and property, equality before the law, rule of law, written constitution, majority rule and protection of rights of minorities.
The communism ideology was established by publication of "The communist manifesto" in 1848. This document laid the philosophical foundation of 19th century communist movements and revolutions.
Around the same time the industrial revolution began in England and spread throughout the rest of Europe in later times. Following rise of standard of living of workers during industrial revolution interest in politics increased amongst the population. Because the number of people was too large—direct democracy, a system of government where the population votes to on all decisions of the government—was not a good enough system to accommodate large number of people. People decided to elect a representative to represent them in the decision makings of the government. Representative democracy, founded on principles of political liberalism was born.
This brief intellectual history makes it clear that communism and representative democracy are creations of 18th century European thought and intellectual tradition. They are both founded on ideas and principles of the Age of Enlightenment. They have the same intellectual origin. Communism installed by force by the soviets failed in Afghanistan. This time old rival of the Soviet Union, NATO has installed its own systems of government. Like before importing to Afghanistan systems of government developed in Europe won't work.
Like communism of 80s was on life support from the soviets while they were in Afghanistan, it received firepower, manpower and financial support from them during that time, today Afghan democracy has been on life support from NATO since it first deployed its troops to Afghanistan, like communist regime died three years after soviet withdrawal, Afghan democracy will fall after complete withdrawal of NATO troops. It may survive for a few years after NATO has withdrawn its forces completely but because democratic practice of the government is not in line with cultural values and practices of the society it serves, it has no chance of survival in the long term, like communism did not in late 80s.
What is more bizarre is to expect a regime to survive when it has no channel of generating enough revenue from its domestic economy to pay for the public goods and services it delivers. Foreign aid contributions will dry up one day and the country has to start paying its own bills.
It cannot do that in the foreseeable future. One day rich kids will get sick of every time seeing Afghan policy makers carry their begging bowl around asking for donations. A regime cannot survive on begging for ever.
Given these realities; socio-economic preconditions essential for functioning of a democratic government do not exist in Afghanistan. There is no national cultural tradition of tolerance, no industrial economy and no large and well-educated middle class. The country has no way of paying its bills because the economy is broken, democracy in Afghanistan is a sinking ship on life support and won't survive in the long term, after NATO goes home, like communism did not after the Soviets went home. It may survive in the short term but no regime can survive on begging while at the same time its values and practices are incompatible with cultural values and practices of its society. You cannot manufacture a ship in Europe and bring it to Afghanistan and expect it to survive—communist boat made in Europe sunk and ship of democracy will sink as well. No chance of survival.