Politics & Policy

A Democratic Culture

Afghanistan has miles to go yet.

Last Monday here, an American military cargo truck lost its breaks and crashed into a row of stopped cars, killing as many as five people. The subsequent riots were widespread and devastating, resulting in at least eleven deaths and much destruction. The capital city of Afghanistan had been a relatively secure and stable place in a country with numerous troubles, so it was discouraging, to say the least, when an enormous riot erupted there because of a car accident.

#ad#Yet there is unrest in the city. The sluggish pace of reconstruction has deeply discouraged the people. I got back to Kabul after ten months in the U.S. and expected to see some changes–even minor changes–but there was nothing. Instead, the money injected to the Afghan economy after the collapse of Taliban is consumed; the half narcotic-run economy is under pressure with no alternatives suggested; small businesses are failing; and the anti-Coalition and anti-government forces become more and more daring.

The rioting we saw in Kabul was partly the work of those who thought they were exercising their right to demonstrate. In all likelihood, they were mostly poor and angry people, motivated by things other than a traffic incident; probably most of them did not even know what had happened that morning. They live in a free and democratic society–at least, to a certain extent–but their understanding of how such a society works is not yet well-developed. In addition, they are not convinced–and rightly so, in part–that their frustrations can be adequately expressed through the peaceful means proper to a free society. Moreover, they were led by a core group of demonstrators, armed with pistols and flammable materials, and inspired by more malicious motives. These riots in Kabul were not the considered work of organized and educated university students, who understood the rules that govern demonstrations–not in the least.

Instead, the riots were an outburst of anger, resulting from the contradictory environment we have created in Afghanistan. We have been given a precious and ideal thing called democracy, yet, for the time being, it remains an unreachable thing. To be sure, just living in a democratic country like the United States long enough to see it in action leaves no doubt that democracy is better than all other models of government practiced around the world. President Ahmadinejad of Iran warns that liberal democracy is in its last days; he could not be more mistaken. But at the same time, a liberal democracy provides the prefect environment for violent internal elements to cause chaos and fear, and for neighbors and regional powers to pursue their own objectives through their proxies in Afghanistan. Democracy is a form of government that, when it fails, fails terribly.

Afghanistan is a country being taken hostage by small, radical, violent groups, who have found themselves marginalized by educated, pro-Western technocrats (as they call themselves). The former mujahedin groups reestablished their relations with some of our neighbors who want the international forces out of Afghanistan. They think that now is time for a change, for a greater role for Iran, Russia, and Pakistan. Some of these radicals got elected to our national assembly, and by abusing their right to immunity and exploiting the free press, they are in much better shape than the executive branch. Thus, they use the means the system gives them to attempt to bring it down.

The government in Kabul must occasionally use force to combat threats to its stability. It makes no sense for the government, for the sake of certain rights, to tolerate threats that will bring down the government and do away with many more rights. This is not always understood by outside observers. When the riots erupted, all the non-government agencies and the media, including those criticizing the government, were asking the government for help. They wanted the government to send soldiers to protect them. Then, when the government wanted to intimidate the rioters with a show of force, they protested. Apparently it is okay if the radicals shoot at our soldiers, since those wearing uniforms must be dispensable. One should not be surprised to see Afghan army troops in the streets of Kabul. Sometimes you have to have a show of force so the decent citizens feel that their property and lives are safe from outlaws who take advantages of such incidents.

Introducing a democratic system of governance has many prerequisites. As these are met, what counts as an offense against freedom by the government becomes less ambiguous. But so long as many prerequisites go unmet, it is sometimes the government’s duty to revoke certain rights at certain times. The government must sometimes take some of its citizen’s rights away for the good of all, and this is especially the case in a democracy established in the aftermath of a militant theocracy. Take, for instance, the government-imposed curfew the night after the riot. No one was hurt because some rights were taken away temporarily, but a city of four million, after a terrible day, could sleep without the fear of looters and criminals.

Sometimes copying and pasting the practices that have worked elsewhere into a place like Afghanistan might not be the best approach. This is by no means to advocate for a totalitarian system, but the law must guarantee the safety of Afghanistan’s citizens at the same time as it protects those freedoms and rights. It must promote education and a stable, developing economy at the same time as it allows for elections and a parliament and the implementation of rules and regulations.

Countering terrorism and narcotics, restoring order, and disarming illegal groups is hard work, needless to say. The challenges we are facing in Afghanistan today are not new, but the choices we make are critical. It will take a long, sustained effort in order to bring about a democratically run government and a civil society comparable to that of developed countries. In the meantime, we should deal with things in the way that is appropriate to our situation.

I do not particularly like laws or lawmakers, generally speaking, though I recognize it is impossible to live without them. But it puzzles me when the laws limit the ability of the government to protect the people against those who would take away the very freedoms on which the law is based. It would be good if Afghanistan had the sort of lawmakers who could help both the government and the people equally, and laws that could help us better serve the people. But we don’t have either yet.

–Akbar Quraishi is a national-security analyst in Afghanistan.

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