Too Fast Too Soon
Observations on Democracy in Afghanistan
A crime scene in Afghanistan. Two worlds that could not be further apart. While the media in Europe and the United States were asking questions about what could have motivated the American soldier who killed sixteen civilians, among them many children, in a single night of violence in Kandahar a few weeks ago, an official Afghan commission has established that the crime and its background make it impossible to conclude that it was carried out by a single perpetrator. Since then numerous Afghan media have been spreading versions that make room for the theory of an orchestrated murder by members of the United States armed forces. Even if the facts seem to contain little that would support this thesis, perhaps there is no better indication of the depth of the mistrust that has established itself between the indigenous population and the foreign military.
Furthermore, the drama of Kandahar transcends the fiction of every script that has been written about the conflict in recent years. While politicians and the NATO leadership are understandably trying to present the crime as an ‘isolated incident’, in truth there are many reasons why it should be seen in the overall context of a war that is characterised by years of brutalisation, sustained disproportionateness, and growing alienation.
When furious Afghans took to the streets after the Koran-burning in Bagram, just a few days later the idea had almost crystallised that an entire people were in danger of being instrumentalised by radical Friday preachers and the Taliban. This idea ignores the calls for moderation that were in many instances being made by precisely such mullahs in Kabul and elsewhere. It would be doing multifaceted Afghan society a disservice simply to reduce it to the cries of ‘Margh ba America’ – ‘Death to America’ – that have been echoing in the media as a result of these most recent events.
There is in fact more than one war being waged in Afghanistan. We are also experiencing the revival of an internal cultural battle with its origins in the last century. The slogans of the increasingly critical public – were they to dare to take to the streets on a regular basis – might just as easily be ‘Down with Karzai’ or ‘Fight corruption’.
Certainly, when it comes to defining the position of democracy in the Afghan context, it is not too great a stretch to turn to the example of the upheaval in the Arab world. In Afghanistan too large sections of the population are seeking an outlet for their rage and disappointment: with warlords and nepotism, the arbitrariness of the authorities, and the state-sanctioned robbery of the people.
It is hard these days to find Afghans who do not, in private conversations, vehemently demand that those responsible at all levels of state, whether national, regional or local, be called to account. In the ten years of the international presence in Afghanistan, corruption and state inefficiency have had greater success in consolidating themselves than ‘good governance’, the programmatic title for the many projects that have swallowed millions of dollars in subsidies.
Nonetheless, despite the recent events in Kandahar, the scenario of democratically-inspired street protests is likely to remain a fiction for many years to come. That, at least, is the view of those to whom I have spoken. The younger generation in particular is unequivocal. ‘Taking to the streets and demonstrating for our goals is the last thing we would do under the current circumstances,’ says Abdullah Khodadad, one of the founders of Eslah Talaban (‘those who seek reform’), a group of students and university graduates, linked up via Facebook, who have given themselves the name of the ‘Reformist Movement’. They are demanding university places and further education for the tens of thousands of school leavers who graduate without any career prospects; governmental bodies that answer to the people instead of holding out their hands for bribes; the removal of old leadership elites. At a press conference, the Reformist Movement draped the walls with orange publicity banners. The idea was convey something of the atmosphere of the Ukrainian revolution. It is also the same orange as the overalls that presented the world with its first image of the prisoners in Guantánamo, in January 2002.
The movement’s website lists around 170 Facebook friends. The number is growing every day, the initiators insist. They have been trying to establish a network with similar initiatives, so far without success. Social media in Afghanistan are indeed becoming daily more popular at a low level. There is, however, a lack of authorities or charismatic figures who could focus the protest. There is also the question of how independent such movements really are. ‘Groups like Eslah Talaban still have the same connections with the political circles of the Northern Alliance,’ comments Gran Heward, a young Afghan who works as a researcher on the subject for AAN, an independent international think-tank in Kabul. ‘The former head of the Afghan secret services, for example – Saleh – got a lot of media coverage after he won the support of another section of the Afghan youth for his so-called “green movement”.’
So is it all just an illusion? ‘How are the youth here supposed to stage successful spontaneous protests and bring about the downfall of the existing structures when the “big brother” United States and the Europeans can’t manage to curb the evil that is rampant in the country?’ asks Shafiq, a journalist and colleague who has worked for many years for the Afghan Service of the BBC. ‘But even if the young people were able to bring about the fall of the Karzai government, there would be another monster lying in wait for them: the new old Taliban.’
Certainly anyone who takes to the streets to demand their rights in Afghanistan must expect to come into conflict not with the forces of the state but with several of the armed political factions. The effect of this on young people is to act as a deterrent. ‘Unlike in Egypt, where it was possible to identify a comparatively clear opponent in the form of the president and the apparatus of state, here we are dealing with threats from many different sides,’ says Shafiq, in an attempt to explain the situation in Afghanistan. So the overwhelming feeling among the younger generation is that they are condemned to a sort of dubious trek through Afghan state institutions until they arrive at an influential position. If, that is, they see their future as being in Afghanistan at all.
Afghanistan as a re-education camp?
This is certainly a gloomy perspective. Not least because we have now reached a point where the Afghan government is quite shameless about eroding aspects of the newly-created institutions from the inside. The international players are often hesitant in registering any kind of protest. Thus at the beginning of the year President Karzai did not extend the mandates of three leading representatives of the independent Afghan Human Rights Commission, which in effect was the same as firing them. The main reason for this was a classified study that lists the names and alleged crimes of leading warriors such as former warlords, including some who currently hold office in the Karzai government. They are pressurising the president not to publish its conclusions. To date, Western governments have barely commented on the incident, which says a lot about the political rules of the game in Afghanistan. Yet it is common knowledge that since the end of 2001 the donor countries, above all the United States, have been co-operating in the fight against the Taliban with the same warlords now targeted in the controversial study.
Against this backdrop the inaction and the perceived fear of the young generation is understandable; it might even be seen as realpolitik. Looking beyond youth protests, many people in Afghanistan consider their own government and the ruling class of nouveaux riches to lack political legitimacy. Two massively rigged elections and the enrichment of an elite that has no scruples about using money and bribes to buy power and political office are among the reasons why the term ‘democracy’ has clearly suffered since 2001 in the eyes of ordinary people as well as intellectuals and those who believe in progress.
Another issue is the rapid speed with which tens of thousands of international advisers, civilian experts and military personnel spread out across the land. Overnight, Afghanistan became one big re-education camp. This was too great a strain, both socially and culturally, as Naser observes. ‘Too fast, your democracy,’ comments the 35-year-old development aid worker from Herat. ‘Large parts of our society were not prepared for it.’
Shafiq, the man who has been with the BBC for years, finds that the relative media freedom in the country is, nonetheless, the fulfilment of his personal dream. But he too sees Afghan culture as an area in which the limitations of the conflict of the last few years have become apparent: ‘The beer cans that you used to get in Kabul in the first few years for three US dollars; the Asian brothels that appeared on the scene and which were followed by prostitution on the Afghan side; the invasion of the Indian entertainment industry’ – all this, he says, has compromised the name of democracy.
Shafiq won one of the coveted scholarships to study in the United States, and anti-modernisers are his bêtes noires; yet his words sound like the kind of thing an anti-moderniser would say. However, the hubris of the West seems to have created a double reflection. Some people it has inflamed against it, whilst at the same time strengthening the scepticism of others who are in principle well-disposed towards it.
Now, against the backdrop of the noble motto ‘Transfer of Responsibility’ for 2014, Western politicians have started stating that the goal of establishing a democracy in Afghanistan is unattainable. How then, one would like to ask, should the poorly coordinated attempts of the past ten years be categorised? And why did these efforts seem to lack direction from the start? The Afghans, at any rate, deserve better than ‘democracy light’.
For a moment Shafiq grows melancholy at the thought of it all, as if it were possible to turn back the hands of time. ‘9/11 was wrong, the US intervention was wrong, and the premature peace talks that are taking place now are wrong too.’ During our conversation two words stand out: ‘monsters’ and ‘beasts’. Both, he groans, are constantly plaguing Afghanistan. ‘There has to be modernisation, whether it comes from the Moon, from Mars, from Germany, from Europe or from somewhere else. But it has to proceed more cautiously and with less haste.’
Dubious aid projects
All this in turn influences the democratic process. Furthermore, aid projects exacerbate the political situation in places where insurgents have secured themselves a share in them. Numerous media reports in recent years suggest that in areas where the Taliban or insurgents lay claim to power, they are siphoning off taxes and duties amounting to between 20% and 40% of the aid budget. Without such secret agreements, aid or supplies for NATO facilities would often simply not get through.
The role of the ulama
We can tell from the public use of the words that the process – the rather coy term favoured by researchers and diplomats – is on the defensive. For a long time now Afghan aid workers have refrained from naïvely using terms like civil society or democracy when going about their work. They are afraid that doing so could invite trouble. Some of the aid workers define ‘civil society’ as an imported Western concept.
Until now, Naser’s aid organisation in Herat has been led by a German. In two years’ time, he is to be replaced by an Afghan. He points out an ongoing fundamental difficulty that they encounter in their daily work. ‘When we do vocational training outside the city it is frequently the case that the tribal elders react with mistrust. Or they refer to the clergy. Many of the mullahs continue to propagate the kind of thinking that says the devil enters the room when an Afghan woman and a strange man come together to work in the same room.’ In mentioning this he is highlighting the influence of the Afghan clergy. For anyone who wishes to understand the social context that goes with the process of democratisation, this is key. The upgrading of the status of the Afghan clergy over the past thirty years could indeed be one of the ‘beasts’ referred to earlier.
‘Along with the political leaders, they are our real problem. Sometimes the political leaders and the clergy are even one and the same,’ says Enayat, a journalist from Mazar-e-Sharif who works for both national and international media. ‘Those who are part of the ulama treat Islam as their own property, as if they had unlimited authority to determine matters. The lower the level of education of the people, the more the clergy take this for granted.’
On the one hand, Mazar, where Enayat is from, is said to have a liberal atmosphere. On the other, it was here that the case of the journalist Perwiz Kambakhsh, who was sentenced to death for alleged blasphemy, originated. The story was covered by media all over the world. The death sentence was later commuted under pressure from abroad. But Enayat is still afraid: ‘When I’m taking part in a public debate and I translate passages from the Koran into the local language, Dari, and add my own personal comments in certain places, I have to pay close attention. If the debate gets heated, I could be risking my neck,’ he says bluntly.
The atmosphere of 1980s and ’90s is still prevalent here. Up to the 1970s the mullahs and talebs were the butt of jokes and had little relevance within society, but in the years that followed their power quickly grew. ‘Islam was a side issue in the 1960s and ’70s in the context of Afghanistan as is was then,’ remembers the translator and philosopher Masoud Rahel. ‘Back then we had no inhibitions about making jokes in public about religion and the clergy; we didn’t have to fear reprisals, or being seen as the enemy. Taleb was what we used to call a mullah’s young assistant back then: a boy who was a kind of acolyte and went from door to door seeking alms.’
Then the Soviet occupation brought parties and movements with Islamic leanings into the equation, groups that in their Pakistani exile primarily organised religious education on a grand scale. To this day the numerous madrassas in the border region are an expression of this fundamentalisation. Soviet sources at the time estimated the number of clerics in the population – from educated ulama doctors of Islamic law to uneducated village preachers – at around 300,000 – a number that has probably risen further still as a result of the wars. Under the Taliban almost all the important positions in government were held by mullahs: they were the ministers, representatives, governors and vice-governors. The judiciary was also in the hands of the clergy.
These structures have not simply been swept away since the US intervention. Nonetheless, the advent of modern mass media, above all television, since 2001 has resulted in many Afghans taking a critical view of the clericalisation of their society. So the country is experiencing, for the third time in just a few decades, an escalating struggle between modernisers and conservatives, the first of whom explicitly want help and influence from abroad; but at the same time, their warnings and advice often go unheeded.The forthcoming talks between the United States and the Taliban signify the start of a new chapter. It is unclear what place democracy will have in this, or how it will be negotiated, and this is a cause for concern in spite of hopes for a negotiated peace. Women in particular, as well as those living in the cities, are afraid of losing the freedoms they have gained in recent years.
works as a journalist, filmmaker and photographer, as well as in the field of development co-operation.
Translated by Charlotte Collins
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
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