Commentary

Afghanistan’s Democratic Debacle

By Patrick Basham
This article appeared on Cato.org on August 20, 2009.

Afghanistan’s presidential campaign confirms that Western leaders cannot push Afghan political culture where it doesn’t want to go. Today, Afghan democrats could hold a convention in a phone booth.

Although Afghanistan’s first presidential (2004) and parliamentary elections (2005) were held in an atmosphere of widespread fear and massive voter intimidation, the international community characterized these elections as watershed moments for Afghan democracy. Events on the ground continue to suggest otherwise. According to the UN, Afghan civilian deaths soared by 24 percent during the first half of 2009. Fears for voter safety on Election Day will shut 10 percent of nearly 7,000 polling stations nationwide.

The country’s security situation requires 63,000 U.S. troops and 40,500 non-U.S. NATO forces to protect what many consider a rigged election. The UN and the Afghan human rights commission have repeatedly complained about interference in the election by President Hamid Karzai’s government.

The most obvious institutional problem is that the election commission is stacked with Karzai’s supporters. It’s also an open secret that Karzai’s campaign has registered three million ‘new’ voters — swelling the electorate by 17 percent — by allowing males to obtain registration cards for non-existent female relatives.

In Afghan-style elections, campaigning politicians are permitted to broadcast threats against their opponents. On the campaign trail, moderate presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani, a former finance minister popular with Afghans in America, is literally a marked man whose advertisements are mysteriously destroyed as soon as they appear on billboards.

It’s increasingly clear that the Taliban’s removal from power did not remove the largest home-grown obstacle to liberal democracy. The Taliban regime represented a 7th century vision of the relationship between religion and the State. They were defeated by those Afghans (allied with the West) with a 12th century vision of man’s relationship to his religious and political rulers.

Hence, President Karzai is unable to stand up to the Ulema, Afghanistan’s conservative religious council, which wields disproportionate political power throughout the country. Cultural traditionalists impose their values by political edict, in the case of Karzai’s government, or by force, in the case of the Taliban.

A new law allows a husband to starve his wife if she refuses to have sex, and requires her to get her husband’s permission to work. Music shops and other places selling “immoral” goods, such as DVDs, are frequent targets of violence and persecution. The country’s culture minister took a private TV network to court to halt its Bollywood soap operas.

But didn’t the Afghans in 2004 enact a Western-style constitution that guaranteed political and religious freedom? No, they did not.

The constitution enshrines the country as an Islamic state. While one clause does state that each Afghani citizen is entitled to religious freedom — a portion often highlighted for Western audiences — a far more important passage declares fundamentalist Sharia law to be the supreme law of the land.

American neo-conservatives have spent the past decade proclaiming the universal freedoms that democracies around the world enjoy. The problem is that Afghani political culture doesn’t celebrate such freedoms at all. It’s an illiberal culture that rewards warlords with political office, requires quotas to ensure female representation in parliament, and tolerates almost indescribably widespread corruption.

President Karzai presides over the fifth most corrupt government in the world, according to a Brookings Institution study. Last year, his government managed to ‘lose’ a staggering 60 percent of its annual revenue.

What’s occurring today in Afghanistan is an affront to supporters of freedom and liberty. But it isn’t an affront to most Afghans. For centuries, Afghan politics has been — and will continue to be for the foreseeable future, no matter how many “free” elections are held — about ethnic identity and strict adherence to Islam. Tribal loyalties and religious conservatism trump all other values.

In Kabul’s mosques, worshippers hear their clerics robustly support illiberal social policies, including second-class citizenship for women and the persecution of homosexuals. The clerics are saying what a vast majority of Afghanis consider both appropriate and just.

The rhetoric is a vivid reminder that one cannot simply drop a liberal democracy into a country like Afghanistan and expect it to take root. This week’s presidential election is the latest demonstration of this stubborn fact.

Patrick Basham is an adjunct scholar with the Cato Institute.