A dead end democracy

The coalition in Afghanistan is insufficient, in the long run, in building a state

Moska Najib Delhi

The beginning of 2006 saw a committed continuation of paving democracy for Afghanistan, as the country was once again in the limelight. Afghanistan's remarkable journey to democracy, which many were skeptical of, was highlighted in the two-day conference held in London.

On January 31 and February 1, more than 60 countries and international organisations vowed not to abandon the fragile nation that faced challenging times ahead. With over $10.5 billion pledged for what is called the Afghanistan Compact, the nation looked forward to five more years of international assistance, indeed an endorsement for the next phase of its development.

In brief, the Afghanistan Compact established three necessary and vital issues of development: security, governance and eco-social growth. Furthermore, the plan incorporated ambitious objectives as a means to fulfill the ongoing transformation of the country from tyranny to democracy. These goals consisted of disbanding all illegal militias by 2007, enrolling 60 per cent girls and 75 per cent boys in primary schools by 2010, and exterminating the opium trade. While the success of these aspirations was clearly felt during the conference, the very basis of this democratic foundation, which lies in its two-year old constitution, has often failed to allure the limelight.

On January 4, 2004, when the international community congratulated Afghanistan on the adoption of its new constitution, it seemed that the war-torn nation had finally discovered a channel to struggle out of its long history. Its new regime was determined to depart from the radicalism of the Taliban regime and step towards a nation that would have "free and fair elections" to choose a "fully representative government."
While serving as a symbol of national rule, the Afghan constitution became a functional strategy to establish unifying values and goals, but more importantly it played a vital role in legitimizing regimes and "reestablishing permanent institutions of government" as outlined in the Bonn Agreement of December 5, 2001. Yet, its faithful impact and sincerity has remained a weary factor in Afghanistan's political development. Even though it may seem that the government of Afghanistan has thus far met all the deadlines and benchmarks required of it under the Bonn Agreement, these efforts however have not yet put Afghanistan irreversibly on a path to self-reliance and self-sustainability.  

Afghanistan is no stranger to conferences and promises. Donor meetings in Tokyo (2002) and Berlin (2004) promised close to $13 billion in aid, raising hopes and expectations. And London (2006) has once again proven to be another donor conference with more aid, and yet the same obstacles: Afghanistan has become more dependent on narcotics production and trafficking than any other country in the world; it also remains one of the world's most impoverished and conflict-prone states  where only a substantial international presence prevents a return to war.

It is the severity of such volatile conditions that have raised doubts about the compatibility of western notions of state and democracy adapted to Afghan political culture and its new constitution. After all, if constitutions have been redrafted ever since 1923, how much validity could the seventh attempt have for the country's unknown future at stake?

With 162 articles, the charter of the Afghan constitution resembles that of the US, which, in the main, limits itself to broad principles and lays down only an indefinite framework for government. The constitution has adopted values crucial to the American and European states so as to maintain the aid received from the chief donors and inventers of the current Afghan government. As a result, the constitutional text indicates its primary objective as to establish sovereignty in an international context and catering to an international audience; domestic goals seem secondary.

By offering such a political opening, the Afghan constitution has become a propaganda value and proof of successful US actions in Afghanistan. Furthermore, the constitution has cemented a clear political power structure that legitimises US long-term plans for Afghanistan. Despite the fact that there still will be a National Assembly with the ability to enact laws, overwhelming political power is currently allocated to the president; a strong presidency is not necessary for democracy but it makes it a lot easier for an external empire to exert control if one person holds most of the power. In a 2003 op-ed article published by the Gulf News, titled "Centralised Presidency in Afghanistan suits US best," similar sentiments were felt. The article projected that, "a centralised presidency in Kabul must be the surest way of maintaining the Afghan government's support for US-led policies ... diluting authority is bound to bring in voices of dissent on matters [bearing on] Washington 's interests."

The notorious constitutional meetings illustrated a similar stance when Afghan warlords of the Northern Alliance (also referred as United Front) and other jihadi factions were allowed to participate as legitimate representatives.

While warlords have been awarded prominent seats in the government of President Karzai as recognition for a democratic government that the country has ever had, some of their documented history of terrorism has often been overlooked and forgotten. In an article published by the International Herald Tribune, two days after the inauguration of the new constitution, John Sifton of the Human Rights Watch characterised the process of selecting representatives for the assembly as "vote-buying, death threats and naked power politics." He further asserted, "the majority of the 502 delegates to the Loya Jirga were members of voting blocs controlled by military faction leaders, or warlords. Some good people were elected, but they were outnumbered and scared."

Perhaps then it would be fair to state that it's the warlords rather than the Afghan people who are liberated by US intervention and empowered to participate in the new political process. According to the Afghanistan expert Barnett R Rubin, the main purpose of US policy in Afghanistan has not been to establish a better government for the Afghan people but rather to dispose terrorist threats against America, as recognised by the Bush administration. Defeating terrorism by funding Afghan fighters led to the creation of an Afghan government at Bonn that depended on a power base of warlords. Thus to a critic, the constitution appears to validate a new system in order to legitimise ultimate US withdrawal from the country. This conduct transpired in December 2005 when US decided to shift the burden, sending an additional 6,000 NATO troops to Afghanistan in order to bring its boys back home from a foreign war. 

While constitutionalism has weakened the new democratic state due to significant roles international contributors have played, on a more fundamental scale, the Afghan constitution has also encountered a number of controversial issues. One such example is women's rights, which has raised much political discord.

According to the constitution, "citizens of Afghanistan, whether man or woman, have equal rights and duties before the law" (Article 22) and it includes special provisions to encourage women's access to education and government. However, traditional Islamic law treat men and women differently in some cases, and existing law in Afghanistan maintains some of these distinctions. Thus, if a conflict arises between an international human rights declaration and the country's law, it does not say which has precedence. But considering the fact that the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan has a conservative judicial system, it may well so interpret the laws in a conservative manner.

Several other articles of the constitution are not clearly defined as well, which have made them open to interpretation. Article 3, for example, says: "No law can be contrary to the belief and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam." Some consider this may open the door to a firm implementation of Islamic law; and while the constitution includes a commission for the implementation of the law, it does not clarify at all what level of authority the commission holds.

If a nation's first baby steps begin with the drafting and approval of a constitution, given that Afghanistan has already implemented these procedures, how faithful will it be to the document? That is, how well will the leaders of the state honour the rules of politics?

The most basic organisation of a system of strong and well-designed political institutions is the state itself. Afghan citizens cannot effectively have their rights protected by a rule of law unless a stable state exists. Without security, a functional rule of law and genuine popular support, the new constitution could suffer the same fate as the country's previous ones have.

If the purpose of the international intervention since 9/11 is to build a partnership with a legitimate Afghan government to prevent similar events from happening again, to stabilise Afghanistan so it can police itself, and to help stabilise the region so that Afghanistan and the surrounding region can eventually be a net contributor to global security and livelihoods rather than a drain, then aid alone cannot suffice Afghanistan towards self-sustainability. The government has to reform itself and curb official corruption; it should raise domestic revenues in a fair and balanced way, improve the civil service and implement a demanding policy framework. While the government of Afghanistan has declared its intention to implement such reforms, the donors have to monitor progress and encourage those in Afghanistan most committed to these policies with a package of support that enables them to implement their own plans.

While the coalition presence may be preventing the Taliban and Al-Qaida from re-establishing bases that can threaten regional or global security, it is insufficient to establish an Afghan state that can sustain that security over time.

As one participant comments in the BBC Have Your Say debate on "What now for Afghanistan?" "As long as the government of Afghanistan is controlled by the US and their President is chosen by the US there is no future. Drug trafficking is thriving at the moment, warlords are governing Afghanistan and the President needs special forces to guard him inside the only city they can control, Kabul. And then you've got BBC that comments on the fact that they now have internet cafes. That's really progress isn't it?"
While the new constitution may be another chapter in the country's long, painful search to become a state, to define itself and its place within the world, the citizens of Afghanistan continue to struggle and question as to whether they can evade the contradictions their new constitution contains. Perhaps the saying "no state, no democracy" holds some authenticity! 

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