The missteps in the Afghan democratisation process – Part 1

This is the first article in a two part series.


Key Points:

Forsaking the existing knowledge about conflict and democratisation by the elites deciding Kabul’s fate led to a disarray-marred Afghanistan post-2003.
Brancati and Snyder argue that the absence of favourable conditions for the founding elections adversely impacts the process of peace and democratisation and may intensify the conflict, and caution elites to be prudent.
In contrast, Jarstad and Sisk argue that excluding a major warring group from the post-war power-sharing agreement makes post-conflict democratisation elusive.
The failure to heed this theoretic knowledge and advice affected the Afghan democratisation process started after the United States (US) invasion of the country in 2001. Policymakers must learn from those mistakes.
Pakistan correctly diagnosed the issue early on and called for the unsavoury but necessary measures to make the process broad-based. However, other mighty powers torpedoed Pakistan’s policy proposals.
The recent breakthroughs in the Taliban-US deals and the Taliban-Afghan government negotiations present a new opportunity to consolidate the democratisation process, which the policymakers must fully use to correct the past mistakes.
Drawing on the experiences for the last two decades, and informing policy based on evidence and theoretic models will be necessary.

Despite the initial high hopes, Afghanistan’s democratisation process quickly disintegrated around 2003, given a series of missteps by democracy assistance professionals, the international community and the warring Afghan factions. Above all, a reckless abandon of the existing knowledge of conflict and democratisation by the elites deciding Kabul’s future contributed to a disarray-marred Afghanistan for the next seventeen years. Except for Pakistan, which correctly diagnosed the issue early on and called for the unsavoury but necessary measures to make the process broad-based. However, other mighty powers torpedoed Pakistan’s policy proposals. While several things went off the rails, the issue of the founding elections and the power-sharing agreement in inaugurating and consolidating Afghan democracy are discussed below. This study is structured first to introduce the problem, then raise the theoretic knowledge, and finally, analyse the issue. It begins with the founding elections of 2004 held under the roadmap agreed by all the Bonn Agreement participants of 2001.

I – Afghanistan’s Founding Elections

The literature on conflict and democratisation recommends that the post-conflict founding elections be held in a manner that does not exacerbate the social divisions. Democratisation is the means on the way of the higher goal of peace, harmony and prosperity. Democratic institutions, norms and cultures substitute violent armed conflict with a peaceful rules-based political competition. Such an outcome is the desirable goal for a people beset with a gruelling conflict. The backbone of democratic governance is the elections, and elections are a competitive process vulnerable to violence even in strong and consolidated democracies. Hence, in a highly divided and weak state that is still overcoming the wounds of the war, elections could inflame fault lines once more, especially in a country like Afghanistan that has not seen any unified state since 1979 at least.

The first part of the article thus deals with the impact of the timing of Afghanistan’s founding elections in 2004. The theory suggests that immediate holding of elections right after civil conflict may result in a renewal of the conflict. Therefore, it is advisable to hold off elections for some time. And if, however, favourable conditions exist, holding elections right after the conflict may not adversely impact democratisation. This article applies the theory to Afghanistan’s first post-conflict elections of 2004 and explains the outcome of the founding elections and its consequences for democratisation.

1. Summarising Brancati and Snyder

Brancati and Snyder argue that in the absence of favourable conditions, an early election, “…increases the likelihood of renewed fighting, but that favourable conditions, including victories, demobilisation, peacekeeping, power-sharing, and strong political, administrative and judicial institutions, can mitigate this risk.” Even that might not be enough in some cases requiring, “…more patient, indirect strategies”, like creating avenues outside the political system to strengthen the government.

This article argues that the policymakers assumed the existence of favourable conditions and failed to deploy “indirect strategies” in Afghanistan, resulting in hobbling the democratic process. At one point, given the hollowness of the whole electoral process, the Afghan government and the US were seriously contemplating foregoing the 2019 elections and waiting for the outcome of the high-level negotiations going on with the Taliban.

What does this theory divulge if applied to Afghanistan? For one, there was either the assumption or wilful neglect of the ground realities by the international community, despite Pakistan’s repeated urgings to make the arrangement broad-based and reflective of the objective fact. Instead, Pakistan’s point of view was not only dismissed, but the country was blamed for patronising terrorists.

2. Assessing Favourable Conditions in 2004

According to Brancati and Snyder, favourable conditions for holding founding elections in the post-conflict societies are:

i. Decisive military victory for one party: One crucial condition that needs to be met before holding elections in a post-conflict state is a decisive military victory for one of the combatant groups. In Afghanistan, a decisive military was only “assumed.” Even though the Taliban were ousted from power, but by late 2003, the group mounted a potent insurgency rendering any post-conflict management difficult.

Not just the Taliban, Afghanistan’s conflict had multiple parties jostling for control of power, or at least their spheres of influence. The Taliban were only one but the most powerful of them. A quick ouster of the Taliban from power during the first few weeks of the invasion was mistakenly assumed to destroy the Taliban’s power permanently. That turned out to be just an assumption.

ii. Demobilisation of combatants: The theory requires comprehensive Disarmament, Demobilisation, and Reintegration (DDR), and the Security Sector Reform (SSR) programs. With the insurgency raging, and the allies of the US-propped Afghan government neck-deep in warlordism and conflict entrepreneurship, both DDR and SSR were not carried out. Caroline A. Hartzell laments the exclusion of a DDR and SSR program in Bonn Conference, 2001. All the former warlords and commanders were integrated into the Afghan Military Force by “decree rather than rational reform.” Most of the anti-Taliban former militias of the Northern Alliance were brought to power by the founding elections in 2004.

iii. International peacekeeping force: An unmet requirement was the existence of an international peacekeeping force, which the democracy promoters on the ground said was fulfilled by the presence of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). The Bonn Agreement created the ISAF in Afghanistan, whereby a large international NATO-led security force was stationed at that point. But most Afghans considered them an occupying force, not a peacekeeping force, acceptable to all Afghans.

iv. Power-sharing agreement by major parties: The Bonn Agreement was touted as a power-sharing arrangement of sorts that had led to the establishment of an interim authority due to expire in six months, followed by a transitional administration. The conduct of founding elections in 2004 had to result in the formation of a Constituent Assembly, which would draft the country’s post-war constitution. Most of the ethnic groups in Afghanistan agreed to share power, but the increasingly important Taliban movement was unwisely kept from power. It was a lapse that Pakistan pointed out and sought to rectify many times only to be shouted down. The Taliban didn’t represent any ethnic group but were largely drawn from the Pashtuns. And this was a grave mistake that made the whole agreement a failure from the start. Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations (UN) envoy who presided the Bonn Conference, later regretted the Taliban’s exclusion.

v. Institutionalised and legalised elections: Another vital hedge against the unravelling of the founding elections was the presence of the electoral legal regimes and election management bodies that commanded the confidence and trust of major power brokers. But the Afghan Independent Election Commission then was weak and suffered from many problems pertaining to personnel and training, and trust issues, and was not well prepared to undertake the gigantic task of elections.

The Afghan judiciary, too, historically weak, suffered from rampant corruption. The media was non-existent, the civil society also was very small. There was no way to hold the executive authority accountable in any way. According to a Human Rights Watch report, “Afghans suffered horrendous atrocities from state authorities including mass murder, rape, tortures, enforced disappearances, theft and arbitrary detention (sic).”

As the preceding discussion shows, favourable conditions for founding elections in Afghanistan did not exist. A power bloc was excluded from the process despite Pakistani protestations, under the assumption that they have been militarily vanquished decisively, when in fact, the Taliban insurgency was raging. The Tajik and Uzbek warlords, while agreed to disarm and demobilise, actually fortified their forces after coming to power. Their militias were the only real guarantee that they would continue receiving the perks and privileges of power. By the time of the elections, the international forces were unwilling to pursue the terrorists offensively and were on the defensive mode inside their forts. The capacity of the independent election commission to hold elections was another issue.

Besides, other issues played a part in destroying democracy. The endemic failure of the elected Karzai government to govern effectively and the rampant corruption eroded democratic trust and governance. Moreover, the peacebuilders and the democracy promoters failed at using the indirect strategies favoured by Brancati and Snyder. One example could be helping enrich Afghanistan by plugging it into friendly global markets may have boosted its capacity to deliver services and prosperity to the Afghans. That would have prevented the public frustration in Pashtun regions, which resulted in the comeback of the Taliban.

In conclusion, democracy promoters in Afghanistan failed to create conditions favourable for democratisation and rushed to hold elections, which has hurt the democratisation process in Afghanistan. Heeding the advice of Brancati and Snyder may have resulted in better prospects for Afghanistan’s democracy.