Destined to Fail: Democracy and State Building Experiment in Post-Taliban Afghanistan
By Saira Aquil
Oxford University Press
September 11, 2001 changed the world. More than anything, it changed the political course of war-torn, Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. An attack of this magnitude on US soil could not be ignored, so the US invaded Afghanistan to target its orchestrators, “to teach them a lesson.”
The US believed that the attacks were planned under the leadership of the Al-Qaeda chief Osama Bin Laden. The Taliban regime was also responsible, for it provided sanctuary to Osama and his Al-Qaeda lieutenants. There was no confusion in the US and its response was quick, ending — or rather beginning — with the global ‘War on Terror.’
Democracy and state-building is what was claimed as the goal by the US in post-Taliban Afghanistan. But it failed. Why did the objective never take off in Afghanistan is the question worth exploring. Dr Saira Aquil details American failures in the state and democracy-building processes in a post-Taliban Afghanistan that was militarily arduous and politically challenging. This subject has already attracted writing from a number of scholars and practitioners. Recognising their gaps, limitations and challenges, Dr Aquil has tried to look at the processes from within.
The American intervention in post-Taliban Afghanistan is particularly important because it was the first field-test case of liberal, democratic, state-building in a non-Western state after 9/11. The state- and democracy-building processes adopted during the conflict, under the banner of the ‘War on Terror’, make it a peculiar case as well, as compared to other post-conflict societies experiencing reconstruction of state and society.
A book adds to the growing literature on the reasons for the failures of the US to implement its vision of Afghanistan
In popular discourse, Afghanistan is rendered as a ‘failed state.’ What do we mean by it? As renowned historian Dr Ayesha Jalal remonstrates, ‘failed’ by whose standards? We must have some standards of ‘failed’ or a ‘failing’ state. It necessitates exploring the link between failed state conditions and the state- and democracy-building policies pursued by the US, to address the conditions and causes of failure.
In post-Taliban Afghanistan, the US, while pursuing state- and democracy-building processes from 2001 to 2013, continued making trade-offs between the two processes with respect to resource allocation, policy-making and prioritising. The interaction between the US and the local warlords was a reflection of a patron-client relationship although, in this case, the client was smart enough to exploit the patron.
The warlords exploited the US policymakers’ knowledge deficit about Afghans and Afghan society, and manoeuvred them through the post-Taliban power corridors of Kabul. Political gaps in the processes helped the warlords and the rentier elite in different phases of the state-building and democratisation process.
In the 21st century, the global focus on failed states arises from the perceived link between their instability and the national security of developed nations. The international community recognises the urgent need to address institutional decay and weakened governance in these states to prevent potential threats to the global political order. The main objective of international state- and democracy-building initiatives is to transform failed or failing states into successful ones.
The intervener’s limited grasp of tribal politics and cultural dynamics in the failed state hindered the consolidation of democracy in Afghanistan. Failures in establishing robust institutions, in handling societal differences and in curbing corruption further weakened the state, making its failure even more likely. To comprehend this failure, examining the historical trajectory of Afghan state-building and democratisation challenges is essential, as history often reveals what memory may obscure.
State formation in Afghanistan, from tribal confederacy to a weak state (1747-1978), was dominated by power struggles among tribal rulers and external influences. Power struggles among the tribal leaders provided the imperialist powers, Russia and Britain, with an opportunity to increase their influence, with them considering Afghanistan a buffer zone between them during the 18th and 19th centuries. Societal attributes and geographical location also proved a stumbling block in state formation.
Under the Amir of Afghanistan Abdur Rahman and his successors, the country transitioned to a unitary state and, later, a constitutional monarchy. Abdur Rahman established a modern army to quell rebellions and defend against Russian threats. He also created advisory bodies — the Supreme Council, with religious and government leaders, and the Loya Jirga, akin to a contemporary parliament, consisting of tribal leaders, ethnic groups, royal members and provincial religious leaders.
Amir Abdur Rahman initiated a centralised rule, adopted by subsequent monarchs, but it didn’t integrate well into Afghanistan’s diverse society. Independent structures hindered state autonomy, and the reliance on foreign powers, especially Russia and Britain, persisted.
British influence endured until 1919 while, post-World War II, the power vacuum left by Britain was filled by Russia. The US connection was initially limited to technical assistance. State modernisation efforts spawned political divisions — modernists versus Islamists. Restricted press freedom and limited election participation impeded political liberalisation, maintaining traditional leadership dominance. The Marxist regime and Soviet intervention further fueled state fragmentation.
The decomposition process of the Afghan state with Soviet intervention and other factors, such as internal power struggles, ethnic and tribal differences and a rentier economy, led to the Afghan civil war and the subsequent establishment of what the distinguished professor of International Relations Dr Hassan Abbas termed as the “Taliban 1.0 regime.”
The Taliban were able to establish relative peace and stability, ruling through coercion and their version of ‘sharia’ law and denouncing the modern nation-state system. Their alliance with Al-Qaeda, providing them a sanctuary in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, resulted in the US-led military intervention and, consequently, the ouster of the regime. Under the banner of the ‘War on Terror’, Afghanistan became the first test-case for a militarised intervention.
The exclusionary democratisation process in post-Taliban Afghanistan started with the Bonn Conference, which partially charted a political course for Afghanistan. The US and UN invited expatriate Afghan political groups and the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance to the Bonn Conference, and the local and external powers agreed to sign an agreement on a provisional basis.
This democratisation process was, however, technical and apolitical in nature. The intervener failed to implement its vision of a liberal democratic regime because of basic flaws in the democratisation process. Focused more on stability than the process itself, it was imposed on the people, rather than including them in its design and implementation. It diminished the chances of developing a democratic culture in society.
The cardinal error was to allow Hamid Karzai to rig the second presidential election. The worsening security situation, the high rate of civilian casualties, limited state capacity, rampant corruption, deepening social divisions and the power of warlords hampered the consolidation of democratic institutions and paved the path to failure.
The process of state-formation on a Western-style institutionalised central state, which started with the signing of the Bonn Agreement, only managed to create a government, not a formal state. Fusing war with liberalisation from the formative phase, US policies were contrary to liberalism. The state they built was merely procedural, based on the structural features of democracy. It proved an empty shell, despite including all technical aspects, such as a constitution, elections, political settlements, a presidential office and a legislature.
The conflicting objectives and the undemocratic means by which the US implemented its policies rendered the indigenous institutions powerless. Thus, state institutions continued to be dependent on the external power’s financial, physical and moral support, even after one-and-a-half decades of US engagement in Afghanistan. The adoption of a Kabul-centric approach to running the state also contributed to the failure, because there already were competing power centres in the country.
This book is a slim contribution to the larger scholarship produced on the issue of Afghanistan. Comprising eight chapters connected logically, it begs a larger question on colonial patterns of thinking, for interventions/invasions/aid and donations hardly ever produce any positive results for the local people.
As the former ambassador and academic Touqir Hussain asserts, no one can stabilise Afghanistan, only the Afghans can. The state and democracy-building failure in Afghanistan is not limited to the US, it goes back in Afghan history. Invaluable lessons should be drawn from that for both the exogenous and endogenous movers and shakers.
The reviewer is a Lecturer at the National University of Modern Languages, Islamabad. X: @Sohail_QAU
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, November 26th, 2023