Lessons from America and Afghanistan

One precious commodity that is increasingly rare around the world is democracy


Farrukh Khan Pitafi October 16, 2021
The writer is an Islamabad-based TV journalist. He tweets @FarrukhKPitafi and can be reached at [email protected]

Let’s face it. There is no comparison between the US and Afghanistan in terms of state power. America remains the most powerful country on the planet, Afghanistan one of the weakest ones. In Afghanistan’s defence, you can advance only one argument. That it still stands. That it has not lost any territory to another country during some of its weakest moments. Sovereignty often, but not territory.

But this piece is not about state power. It is about one precious commodity that is increasingly rare around the world, namely democracy. Afghanistan’s democracy, or whatever passed for it, was so weak that it is now defunct and an idea so remote for its de facto rulers that they do not even pretend the country could ever return to democracy. The world’s most powerful democracy, America, believes it is also in crisis. But if our introverted American peers could pay some heed to these parts, perhaps, they would never tire of counting their blessings.

Consider this. There are eight countries in South Asia and only one with a near uninterrupted history of procedural democracy. Not uninterrupted. Nearly uninterrupted. Because of the two years of the emergency rule. Elsewhere, in the region, it struggles for wider approval. And the one exception to the rule we just identified has morphed and regressed so demonstrably that it is difficult to tell it apart from populist autocracies of the world.

Afghanistan then is chosen here for its shock value. To show how quickly the accumulated fruits of the evolution of twenty years can disappear without a trace. And the US for the unique nature of challenges its democracy faces today. I, for one, will not deny it. How could I? When on November 14, 2020, I wrote a piece in this space titled “America needs constant vigilance” with the subtitle “The quantum of misinformation being used to discredit the election outcome”, I could foresee some sort of disruption. These challenges, as illustrated by Bill Maher in one of his unusually sobering segments, have only compounded since January 6 this year. In both these examples, there are lessons for all of us, especially struggling democracies like Pakistan. So, let us dive in.

One, stop taking everything for granted. The entire state apparatus of Afghanistan collapsed in a single day. In the US, despite deep suspicions about foreign election meddling and a whole host of oversight mechanisms neither Trump’s momentum could be checked in 2016 nor an insurrection on January 6, this year. Democracy is not a naturally occurring element. In our Darwinian, anarchical world, autocracy and authoritarianism occur naturally. For democracy to hold you need a permanently updating, robust, and boisterous ecosystem. This ecosystem does not have a mind of its own. You may think that every threat will be caught in the net, but we know one thing about the destabilising ideologies. That they can easily contaminate the safety valves and destroy the system from within.

Two, by its nature democracy has to be inclusive. Populists try to other entire segments of the society. The hatred of this cultural or political other creates divisions in the society and makes the task of nation building impossible. Like democratisation, nation-building is also a constant zero-sum exercise. When you are not progressing, you are regressing. You can see how inclusive the Afghan government was by looking at the voter turnout in 2019 (18.87 per cent) or the composition of the state apparatus. In America the turnouts are now outstanding, the society incredibly inclusive but still due to the predatory nature of some of the capitalist policies and absence of a broad-based social safety net, the sense of victimhood among depressed classes grows exponentially.

Three, address the roots of dysfunction in governance. They can lead to total and quick disaster.

Four, go out of the way to ensure exceptional civil-military relations. Ex-president Ghani’s heavy-handed and impulsive mistreatment of his general officers was a great source of demoralisation. In the end, hardly anyone was ready to stick his neck out for Ghani’s rule. Now, established democracies do not like to pay much attention to military power. But it is a fact that following the January 6 insurrection had all military leaders in the US not thrown their weight behind the transition process we still could be struggling with an unstable government and violence on the streets. I know you will be surprised when I quote Samuel Huntington here for my regular readers know I have no love lost for him. But this one is an important exception. In his 1957 book, The Soldier and the State: The Theory and Politics of Civil-Military Relation, he draws a useful distinction between the objective and the subjective control over the armed forces. The subjective control is in the shape of the constitutional and institutional restrictions on the autonomy of these forces. This seldom works on its own. The other, the more realistic and the optimal, the objective one is exerted when you professionalise them. This means no attempts to politicise them by inviting them into the political domain, not interfering in the internal clockwork of merit-based transfer and postings, and obviously no favouritism. It doesn’t hurt if you earn their respect by being professional yourself. But that is exactly what was on display following the insurrection.

Five, build robust institutions and always strengthen them. Consider how the US judicial system threw out flimsy election challenges by Trump’s legal team, especially a conservative-dominated Supreme Court. Because of strong institutions.

Six, free and fair media with an honest if a proportional representation of dissent is an absolute must for the health of democracy. Deny this and conspiracy theories start to fly.

Seven, always know that national survival is more important than any ideology. Never risk the survival of the nation, its political system for the sake of ideology. When things regress even the best ideologies can work as knives in the enemy’s hands.

Eight, never legitimise or normalise the enemies of the democratic ecosystem. The most notable example is of the violent extremists. In Doha talks, the Trump administration locked a representative government out of the dialogue process permanently undermining it and legitimising the militant group that now controls Afghanistan. Afghanistan’s situation might be different than Pakistan but here the state should fight the terrorists until their total defeat.

Nine, beware of the bad-faith actors, who try to pervert and undermine the system from within.

Ten, never prolong a dispute or crisis. Such disputes or crises are putty in the hands of the system’s enemies. Seek an immediate resolution and layout an elaborate dispute resolution mechanism.

Eleven, never undermine your/system’s allies for the sake of optics.

Finally, find a way to win people’s trust and respect instead of forcing them against their will. Develop a robust and honest thought process to win over people. Seek to understand the other side’s perspective before trying to be understood.

The list of lessons goes far beyond this space. But these are the most important lessons to guarantee the stability of a healthy democratic system.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 16th, 2021.

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