When the final edition is written of America’s imperial adventures in the early years of the 21st century, a significant plot point will be that Americans demonstrated a profound lack of faith in their own institutions. Unlike the British, who retreated from empire and left versions of their own parliamentary democracy behind, Americans used nation-building in Afghanistan and Iraq as the occasion for failed ideological experimentation.
Despite having the world’s oldest federal constitution, as the Harvard professor Thomas Barfield put it in his recent history of Afghanistan, Americans routinely prefer to support all-powerful strongmen abroad. And given the violence they visited upon that constitution in the name of strong executive authority after 9/11, it is clear that Afghanistan was set up as an idealized version of the system the neo-cons in Bush’s office would have preferred for themselves back home.
Which helps explain why Afghanistan’s democracy remains so fragile. Jan. 21 was supposed to mark the inauguration of Afghanistan’s second parliament. Instead, President Hamid Karzai postponed it for a month pending the results of an extraordinary five-member panel of judges appointed by Karzai himself, to review cases of alleged fraud. Last fall’s parliamentary elections didn’t exactly go in Karzai’s favour, and the decision marked an intensification of his ongoing campaign to have the legally certified results at least partially overturned, if not completely annulled. At press time, Karzai appeared to have caved to pressure, tentatively agreeing to open the Wolesi Jirga on Jan. 26.
But the fundamental problem has not changed. When the Afghan state was being rebuilt after the Taliban were chased out in 2001, there was some debate over whether power should be concentrated in Kabul, or whether a federal state was more appropriate. The diverse character of Afghan society, and the growth in regional autonomy over two decades of war, argued for a decentralized state. But the international community, led by the U.S., sided with their clients in the Kabul elite to implement a powerful president and bureaucracy, which gave the central government broad powers over taxation, appointment of provincial governors, and responsibility for the provision of local services.
This concentration of power in Kabul might have seemed like a good idea administratively, but from the perspective of legitimacy, it has been a disaster. The national government now takes the heat for virtually everything that goes wrong in the country. And because Karzai is seen by most Afghans as the puppet of the Americans, local anger flows straight up to Kabul and out to the international community itself. Worse, the essentially monarchical character of the Afghan constitution only amplifies Karzai’s personal flaws: he’s always been weak and indecisive, but it turns out he’s also a petulant child-king who apparently doesn’t care how his behaviour affects the citizens of his country.
If the flawed Afghan strategy represents the political dimension of neo-con adventures in nation-building, their economic agenda was reserved for Iraq after the U.S. invaded in 2003. Convinced that greed was good and markets were natural, the Americans destroyed the institutional and legal framework of the Iraqi economy. In its place they installed all of the perceived preconditions for a capitalist economy: a privatized state, minimal taxes and tariffs, and no restrictions on foreign ownership. In this Edenic laissez-faire ecosystem, it was assumed free-market capitalism would spontaneously arise.
As we all know, what in fact happened was that Iraq spontaneously descended into violence, looting, and mob rule. But then-secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld famously shrugged when asked about the looting, “Freedom’s untidy. Democracy is a messy thing.”
For the Americans, capitalism in Iraq amounted to destroying the state and seeing who starts a business, while democracy in Afghanistan involved appointing a strongman and seeing if anyone would vote for him. These twin experiments in the neo-con laboratory failed for the exact same reason: institutions matter, and historical structures cannot be ignored.
After Karzai announced his postponement of parliament, legions of cynical columnists quickly jumped in with the usual world-weary pronouncements: the West has no stomach or talent for nation-building; you can’t impose democracy on those who don’t understand it.
Balls. It’s precisely because Afghans understand what democracy means that they have little time for the sham version the international community has tried to foist upon them. If our attempts at building a democratic Afghanistan fall apart, it won’t be because they weren’t ready for it. Rather, it will have failed because we didn’t have enough faith in our own democracy to let the Afghans give it a chance.