Why Don’t Iraqis and Afghans Embrace Democracy?

“What’s wrong with those people?” many Americans — and not just those on the right — think about Iraqis. “We got rid of their tyrant and gave them their freedom. But look what they did with it — mowed each other down and blew each other up. Maybe they don’t deserve democracy.” (As I posted yesterday.)

We seldom stop to think that to many in the world democracy is just another political system and since it’s not indigenous to them, one they’re likely to give short shrift. Also, whenever there’s a power vacuum, jockeying for position supersedes establishing a just political system even if an outside force is willing to help them with its institution. Of course, if the outside force is occupying their land, especially with a heavy hand that results in untold numbers of civilian deaths, it’s absolutely no advertisement for democracy whatsoever.

Meanwhile, tailoring democracy to fit Afghanistan is proving even more unlikely. Anatol Lieven explains at Current Intelligence, a remarkable British web publication to which you (like myself) may not yet have been exposed. If you’re looking for a crash course on why Afghanistan is proving intractable to the West, you could do a lot worse than this article, which is, in fact a review of three books. (Thanks to Steve Hynd of Newshoggers for bringing it to our attention.) Lieven writes:

. . . engagement in Afghanistan has been above all one of the largest and most expensive exercises in collective narcissism that the world has ever known, and Afghanistan itself a landscape of the mind, onto which Westerners could project a variety of agendas and fantasies. As Antonio Giustozzi [editor of one of the books reviewed, Decoding the New Taliban: Insights from the Afghan Field] writes, “Every age has its follies; perhaps the folly of our age could be defined as an unmatched ambition to change the world, without even bothering to study it in detail and understand it first.”

It would be nice to pin all the blame for this on Bush, Blair and their supporters, but this tendency spread much more widely and is much more deeply rooted in contemporary Western culture. . . . In the first years after 2001, literally thousands of government departments and contractors, but also high-minded NGOs swarmed around the bloated feast of Western “aid to Afghanistan.” . . . the desire to bring democracy, freedom, “good governance” and an improvement in the status of women to Afghanistan were laudable goals in themselves, but the result has been a ghastly masquerade. . . .

[In fact, the West's] systemic ignorance [about Afghanistan] marks a difference from the era of European empires [when] scholars [were] working in the field. . . . This had at least some effect in modifying the fantasies that they could project onto their subjects. . . .

Intense study of Afghan society, culture and politics are so important because they are so very different from those of the modern West. . . . it takes an enormous leap of knowledge and imagination for Western officials to apprehend those realities at all, or to design strategies to deal with them. [Emphasis added.]

In practice, writes Lieven . . .

. . . the West created the thin façade of an Afghan state in the image of itself, convinced itself that this flimsy object had real being, and then fell into paroxysms of rage and disappointment when our Afghan allies acted according to the traditions and the realities of their own society, and not according to our precepts. . . . [Giustozzi writes that the] West’s approach in Afghanistan has been to try to transfer the structures of fully-developed modern statehood to Afghanistan — and not just that, but . . . modern Western democracy. [But] Giustozzi suggests, Afghanistan is at an early stage of state formation [and] any parallels (however inexact) in European history would have to be sought not in the recent past but many hundreds of years earlier [such as] the period of Charlemagne. [Also Machiavelli is] a pretty good guide to the realities of warlordism, though the setting of contemporary Afghanistan is far poorer and less developed than that of 16th century central Italy. [Think about that. -- RW]

Giustozzi’s basic conclusions concerning the nature and future of the state in Afghanistan are grim but convincing. “In the case of Afghanistan,” he writes, “the problem is still state formation more than state building. Gradually I came to think that the formation of a ‘modern’ . . . state in Afghanistan has little chance of succeeding unless it relies on the establishment of an international protectorate, with all the difficulties that come with that.”

In other words, democracy is either far too advanced for Afghanistan or, if you wish to avoid patronizing it, far too alien.