Why the Democratic Experiment in Afghanistan Failed

The rapid collapse of the Afghanistan government by Taliban forces, and the swift fall of Kabul, are events which have shocked and grasped commentators around the world this week. A 20 year experiment by the United States and its allies in the name of attempting to create a “liberal democracy” in the country following their invasion failed immensely and more quickly than anyone could have expected. The cycle of Afghanistan went in one continuous loop, from the deposing of the Taliban Islamic Emirate state, to a democratic solution, to its downfall and the return of the group to power. But why did it all go wrong? Why did Democracy not suit Afghanistan’s political landscape? Why did the US and its allies not understand this country? These are all serious questions to contemplate.

Democracy is an idea. It is on its most basic definition, quite vague and doesn’t offer as many specifics as to what it truly means as one thinks. A democracy is apparently the idea that a country should be ruled by its people and the popular will, but that is an aspiration, it does not provide a practical handbook for how a country ought to be run in practice. Who are those people? Do we signify it by a quantity alone? It is a conception of how a country “ought” to be, not necessarily “what it is”- it offers no administrative insights in how to run it in practice, and such whether a country is a democracy or not tells us nothing in fact about the socio-economic distributions of power within that country, how a society perceives itself in relation to the state, relates to itself and more importantly, whether that society sees the political system as legitimate and adhering enough to their interests for them to seek to defend it.

It should be no surprise on this note that a democracy in the United States is not the same as one as let’s say, India or for that matter, even Japan. All of these countries describe themselves as such, but they are not the same in practice. Democracy is a procedure and a theory of how power ought to be divided into a society, but not so much an inclination as to where it is.  In this sense, Democracy is not a failed system, but it is utopian. The problem is of course that some in the west see it as a religion, and so of course they would because it for the most part, functions in their countries, but its success is not owned to the mere idea of democracy alone.

British and American democracy for one find longevity in the fact that their countries are stable, prosperous and that there is a large middle class who buy into it and seek to propel that status quo and are happy to accept a two-party system where both main groups buy into that status quo, but merely propose different interpretations of it. They vest themselves in a shared set of ideas and visions which compromise the legitimacy of the state. Thus, whether a democracy survives, is not as Americans depict it, a simple matter of right or wrong, or good or evil, but for the incentive of the population to feel it is worthwhile, and as seen recently in Washington D.C at beginning of this year, even that is questionable at times.

In which case, the idea that Democracy can be “exported” as a religious idea and implemented in countries with vastly different circumstances than the west, is erroneous and naïve. Afghanistan is perhaps the biggest rendition yet of that failure. The US and its allies attempted to impose its own ideology and vision of government in an impoverished country which has scathing ethno-sectarian divides and existing tribal and kinship allegiances, of which do not see the central state authority and they never in fact asked for, as readily legitimate, not least one created by perceived foreign aggressors who they never asked to be invited in their country at all. The Afghan government had no real support, and scenes show videos of the population booing, hissing and throwing things at their retreating troops as it collapsed.

The Taliban on the other hand, are a radical Islamist group which by many definitions can be described as “extremist”. However, the Taliban find legitimacy through the fact they represent the Pashtun ethnic group of which compromises 48% of the country’s population. An ethnic group is a common shared linguistic identity and traits which of course has been the most common way in the modern history to grant “legitimacy” to the idea of a state. But because Afghanistan is so ethnically divided, the Taliban subsequently adapt Islamism as their key ideology because Islam is perceived as the only “unifying” force and common set of values which holds the conflicting groups together. Islam is universalist and theorizes a religious-state community known as the “Umma”. The now defunct “Islamic Republic of Afghanistan” tried to do this under the democratic structure. However, the mantle of American liberal democracy was not capable of mending the country’s ethnic conflicts as it lacked the underlying legitimacy, resources and institutions to do so. 

The Afghan government were perceived as corrupt, out of touch and elitist. The notion that someone can merely “vote” for something is not the guarantee of a stable and secure country, this is the myth of western exceptionalism. Afghanistan does not have a stable and vested middle class outside of Kabul who buy into the legitimacy of the political system and seek to sustain it, therefore the Taliban found momentum in the neglected rural areas who found they earned nothing from a “democracy” which existed as an idea, but did not function in practice as the state lacked the legitimacy or stability for it to work. Therefore, without US support, the Afghan state collapsed in the space of a week. 

This should be a lesson in practice for the west, but the chances are it won’t be. Afghanistan is not even the first example, such western imposed regimes have only led to more crisis in Libya, Iraq and so on. We have to understand every country by its own political conditions and the socio-economic arrangements that exist within it. You cannot force an ideology on a country, from the outside, of which is completely ignorant and unsuitable for that country’s conditions. This does not mean Democracy fails every time, but that a liberal democracy is not a catch all solution to the problems of the entire world. We now have to work with Afghanistan as it is, than what we would desire it to be.

Tom Fowdy is a Political Columnist for The Southern African Times. He is a British political and international relations analyst and a graduate of Durham and Oxford universities. He writes on topics pertaining to China, the DPRK, Britain, and the U.S.

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