Democracy in Afghanistan is wishful thinking
In a feudal society that long picked leaders according to religion and tradition, the winner of today's election may be seen as illegitimate – simply because he is elected.
(Page 2 of 2)
This historical reality poses a major problem for the US. Democracy is not a coat of paint. A feudal society in which women are still largely treated as property and literacy hovers below 10 percent in rural areas does not magically shortcut 400 years of political development and morph into a democracy in a decade. The current government of Afghanistan's claim to legitimacy is based entirely on a legal source – winning an election. Yet this has no historical basis for legitimizing Afghan rule. The winner of today's election will largely be seen as illegitimate because he is elected.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
The tragic mistake, which we warned against, was in eliminating the Afghan monarchy from a ceremonial role in the new Afghan Constitution. Nearly two thirds of the delegates to the loya jirga in 2002 signed a petition to make the aging King Zaher Shah the interim head of state, and only massive US interference behind the scenes in the form of bribes, secret deals, and arm twisting got the US-backed candidate for the job, Hamid Karzai, installed instead.
The same US and UN policymakers then rode shotgun over a constitutional process that eliminated the monarchy entirely. This was the Afghan equivalent of the 1964 Diem Coup in Vietnam: afterward, there was no possibility of creating a stable secular government. While an Afghan king could have conferred legitimacy on an elected leader in Afghanistan, without one, an elected president is on a one-legged stool.
An American cannot declare himself king and be seen as legitimate: monarchy is not a source of legitimacy of governance in America. Similarly, a man cannot be voted president in Afghanistan and be perceived as legitimate. Systems of government normally grow from existing traditions, as they did in the US after the Revolutionary War, for example. In Afghanistan, they were imposed externally. Representative democracy is simply not a source of legitimacy in Afghanistan at this point in its development. This explains in no small measure why a religious source of legitimacy in the form of the hated Taliban is making such a powerful comeback.
As was the case in Vietnam after the Diem Coup, there is little likelihood today of establishing a strong central government in Kabul which is genuinely seen as legitimate in the eyes of the Afghan people and which has significant public support across the country's ethno-sectarian divides. As a revision of the Afghan Constitution to restore a ceremonial monarchy is now highly unlikely, the only remaining option is to move away from counterproductive efforts to "extend the reach of the central government," which further undermine traditional sources of local legitimacy and resistance to the Taliban, and work instead to re-empower legitimate local authorities in a more decentralized state.
Thomas H. Johnson is a research professor at the Department of National Security Affairs and director of the Program for Culture and Conflict Studies at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. M. Chris Mason is a retired foreign service officer who served in 2005 as a political officer on the provincial reconstruction team in Afghanistan's Paktika Province. He's currently a senior fellow at the Program for Culture and Conflict Studies and at the Center for Advanced Defense Studies in Washington.