It has long been my contention that the only real seedbed for democracy is democracy itself. That is, the track record of stable, self-perpetuating democracies arising in countries without a democratic tradition is really poor. Obviously, every situation is unique, but a trend analysis would indicate that the attempts of the western world to set up democratic governments in the rest of the world, particularly the poorest parts of the world, generally resulted in failure.
If one looks at successful transitions to democracy, there appear to be two models. The older democracies all arose in historical situations where the country had earlier experience with democratic government. The American colonies had been governing themselves in a democratic fashion for a century before they set up the modern world's first democracy. Britain's aristocratic system had been slowly evolving into a modern democracy for centuries, and France had tried and failed at having a government of, by, and for the people several times before and during the twentieth century. So when democracy became the law of the land, people were used to and expected it, and behaved accordingly.
The other successful model is, of course, imposed democracy, as was used after World War II. The occupation of Germany and Japan (and South Korea and, to a lesser extent, Italy) was never a colonial occupation, but an armed occupation with the goal of transitioning those countries to a new, democratic, form of government. And, largely, it worked. Of interest are each country's divergent results with democracy, based very obviously in their cultural setting. Japan, with a culture of consensus-building and social conflict avoidance, subsequently had one-party rule for half a century. Germany, having failed in their earlier, imposed-and-abandoned attempt at democracy, built a goverment-worker-business relationship based on nineteenth century central control models. But in all cases, the countries had democracy imposed on them for long enough that it became the expected form of government.
On the other hand, former colonies the world over were handed over to "democratic" governments that looted the colonial capital improvements until they fell apart, then collapsed into dictatorial rule. Which is precisely where they had come from. And the thread that runs through all these diverse stories is that the countries had no tradition of democratic rule to fall back on. No one expected it. No one demanded it. The purpose of the government was to benefit the government. That's how it had always been. When the colonial power left, they just left, often in a big huff. They didn't stick around to guide the newly independent country. It was "fire and forget" nation-building. And, almost without exception, it failed.
The notable exception, of course, is India. But here, too, history proved the hypothesis true. Whereas Africa was colonized only in the latter half of the nineteenth century, and was under colonial administration for roughly half a century, India had been in British hands for most of the nineteenth century. The Indian ruling classes were no longer simply the descendants of local despots, but were administrators who had been educated in England for generations. So when (after the British government simply abandoned India in 1948) the civil collapse finally came to an end in 1952, the Indians expected to set up a democracy. The necessary idea that the government existed to serve the people was already firmly entrenched.
Which brings me, finally, to Afghanistan. In Afghanistan we (the United States) have a chance to set up a functional democratic government in an aggressively muslim country. I need not belabor the benefits of this to all parties concerned. But what we are doing instead is what we have always done, which is to set up an existing group that we like, bolster them a bit, and get the hell out. The results will not be to our liking. Either the group we set up will remain in power and become increasingly autocratic, or while they are becoming autocratic they will be toppled, and, obviously, the group toppling them will despise us. It's a lose-lose situation.
And the reason is that Afghanistan, like most of the world, has no tradition of a government that is responsible to the people. So why should that government arise, or stick? It won't.
The solution to this problem is to treat nation-building like the activity it is named for - building. You can't simply replace a collapsing house by knocking it down and leaving the inhabitants to rebuild with the same materials and the same know-how. You need to approach it as a long-term, well-planned project, importing new materials and teaching the inhabitants all the tricks you have learned from years of experience. Only then will the house that you'd like to see on your block have a chance of standing.
First off, the most important feature is the blueprint. Everyone involved needs to know what is going to happen, when, and most importantly when it will be finished. No one wants the U.S. to be in Afghanistan forever. But to err on the side of getting the hell out is as bad as staying there ad mortuum. We must devise a plan for the rebuilding and transition of the country to indiginous hands on a time scale long enough to give the people the experience (and subsequent expectation) of democracy, but not so long that people who are young and restless now will not see their own ability to direct events as being too far off. It should be, say, a generation and a half. Fifteen years.
(The conservatives in the audience blanch.)
And what should be on this blueprint? It needs to address a number of things:
With those points in mind, the blueprint would look something like this:
Phase One (Years One through Five) - significant amounts of food aid will be necessary. The military, although recruiting locally, will be controlled by an outside agency, perhaps a UN commission, perhaps a special multi-national force. Rebuilding roads, phone lines, schools, and clean water supplies will be a priority. Schools, both elementary and higher education, will be very important to get up and running quickly, even if enrollment is only a limited portion of the population.
The government will be run by an imposed entity, again most usefully a UN commission or multi-national entity, with an obviously finite lifetime. A body of law will be quickly imposed, based on international norms and local considerations. Courts will be established, and for the first several years, monitored as to their application of the laws.
Politically, local government (city level) will have elections every two years, with only nominal powers the first year, and increasing powers of taxation, legislation, etc. as time goes on. Local govermental power should be completely independent by year ten. In addition to getting people used to elections, this will expose many kinks and give the system a good shakedown.
In addition, a national election for delegates to a constitutional convention should be held, and the constitution produced by the third or fourth year.
Phase Two (Years Five through Ten) - the infrastructure of the country should have all its critical components rebuilt, and now larger-scale projects such as major transportation, utility, and water projects considered and embarked on. This is a particularly flexible area of the budget.
Local governments will be increasingly autonomous, and in year six elections will be held for regional entities. Again, a serious of three elections, every two years, will be held, each regional assembly being delegated additional powers with each election.
The police, having been trained and established, will be tied into the emergant local governments, with local political oversight in year six and direct elections of police commissioners in year ten. Local government will be able to create local legislation in year eight, and the courts will refer to it in combination with the earlier legal code.
A national election should be held in year six, for a body that will ratify the new constitution by a two-thirds majority.
Phase Three (Years Ten through Fifteen) - the focus on infrastructure should switch from construction to training - teaching the locals to fish, in other words. The schools established at the start of this programme will have produced mathematically capable engineers as well as political and educational thinkers, who can become the second (and more dedicated) wave of societal leaders. Maintenance and locally funded and manned programs should be emphasised.
National elections for a national parliament, at first with limited but nonetheless important powers, and by the third session (year sixteen) assuming complete responsibility. The military, ten years old, should now be placed under civilian authority, at first with the veto of the international body and, in year sixteen, completely.
In year sixteen, the interim government packs its remaining bags, and the last people head home. Since power was being devolved in stages, there won't be that many governors left, but it is likely that an international presence will remain for many years in the areas of assistance and education.
Well. That's the plan. Would it work? Absolutely. As long as you bring plenty of butter, enough that not only will the powerless support you but the powerful will see their own lives improve, trading power over their neighbors for material comforts. As long as the imposing power credibly states that it will leave, and when. As long as the sacrifices that are necessary on the part of the imposing power(s) can be made.
Will it happen in Afghanistan? No way. We never learn, especially the social conservatives among us. Taking down enemies is easy. Building friends is much, much harder, and the conservative rallying cry of "it's not our problem" is far too seductive, at least for Americans. It is also worth realizing that we didn't conquer Afghanistan. We helped the northern alliance re-conquer it. So, were we to want to try this, even with the backing of most of Afghanistan, we would have to be willing to knock down whichever local despots may decide to oppose us. We're not willing. We just wanted to eliminate those we didn't like and get out. We're rather like those local despots, really - much easier to use violence and get the best immediate solution than to work hard and build something worth having.
We've torn down the old house, but rather than stay and rebuild it, we've handed to tools to Moe, Larry, and Curly, and gone home for the day. And we'll shake our heads and cluck when the place turns out all fucked up, yet again.
But I could be wrong, and I keep hoping.
- Sun Ra
Columns by Sun Ra