Afghanistan challenge is not to create “western-style” democracy

By Ahmad Shah
March 12, 2010

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- Ahmad Shah is a Afghan social entrepreneur and human rights activist living in London. He is currently studying MSc in International Business Economics at the University of Westminster. The opinions expressed are his own. -

An oft-heard refrain holds that Afghanistan is a “graveyard of empires” where corruption and violence are endemic; a land that never had a strong central government, and cannot be democratised. While perhaps flattering to Afghan pride of strength, these half-truths bear little relation to reality.

It is true that Afghans are fiercely independent, and that Pashtun precepts concerning honor are more sacred than life itself. It is also true that no outside power has ever succeeded in subjugating Afghanistan. None of this means Afghanistan is destined to remain a failed state.

In fact, for much of the 20th century Afghanistan had a strong central government. Corruption may have always existed, but until recently it was not the centrepiece of Afghanistan’s economy or society. Under King Zahir Shah, who ruled from 1933 to 1973, Afghanistan was stable and progressive, and while not a wealthy country, it was certainly not one of the poorest.

So how did Afghanistan come to its present predicament? In brief, Soviet intervention destroyed the nation’s fabric of central government. However over the last eight years corruption and injustices against the civilian population not only destroyed the fabric of local tribal governance but completely devastated Afghanistan as a nation.

Until 1973, Afghanistan was peaceful and sovereign, with capable and respected police forces, national army, educational institutions and health facilities, under a constitutional monarchy. In 1973, Dauod Khan, a Soviet sympathizer, overthrew King Zahir Shah and six years later the Soviets invaded.

This set in motion a chain of events whose consequences are still with us. When the last Soviet-backed government fell in 1992 and the U.S. turned its attention elsewhere, Afghanistan descended into chaos and civil war.

Therefore, Afghanistan’s challenge is not to create a “western-style democracy” but to restore what existed not long ago. Grand corruption, which began as a plague on the Afghan government, has spread like a virus throughout society.

According to Transparency International, Afghanistan is now the second most corrupt country on earth. It has become increasingly difficult for any legitimate business to function normally. Honest entrepreneurs face constant demands for bribes from government officials, and in the extreme, risk murder for resisting blackmail, refusing bribes or competing with the economic interests of powerful officials.

That is why a small number of privileged, connected elites have accumulated staggering wealth, while 99 percent of the legitimate, productive business sector struggles merely to survive.

During the period of conflict and war that began in the early 1970s, the late Haji Allah Nazar Dustukhel – a prominent parliamentarian, tribal elder, and entrepreneur – remained in Afghanistan. As a member of parliament, he was an outspoken critic of Soviet intervention and was imprisoned for almost a decade.

After his release, he avoided politics and developed businesses to create jobs in his native country. He refused to support the Soviet backed regime in Kabul despite offers of various high ranking positions by the then Afghan President the late Dr. Mohammad Najibullah. Others fled to pursue safer lives abroad and most of these “fair weather nationalists” have now returned with some of them exploiting their public offices for yet more personal enrichment.

Despite this impeccable legacy, during the last few years even the late Allah Nazar’s heirs have become victims of Afghanistan’s culture of corruption and impunity. On Nov 1, 2008 his grandson, Mohammad Ashraf Dustukhel, was murdered as his car passed by the President’s office and the Ministry of Defense, just a few meters from a police precinct near a police check point. Sixteen months later, the case remains unsolved.

Although the motives and identities of those who killed him remain unknown, one thing is clear: Ashraf Dustukhel was a businessman continuing on his grandfather’s tradition of honest business, doing well and doing good for Afghanistan. One can only assume that for certain powerful interests, doing well and doing good are now zero-sum endeavors. If the police are helpless to solve a murder literally in their own front yard, one must wonder if the reasons go beyond bad luck or ineptitude.

By themselves, unsolved murders do not mark a society in crisis. When combined with other disturbing trends, such as the arbitrary abrogation of private property rights of the “unconnected” and rampant official corruption, a more disturbing picture emerges. The late Ashraf Dustukhel’s family, along with many others, has had their land expropriated without due process or legal authority by high ranking officials in Maidan Province and Central Kabul.

State-owned land has been sold to mysterious buyers at bargain prices. Similarly, the late Ashraf’s business partners absconded with his funds. Despite the recent resignation of the head of the Afghan Senate, and the new assertiveness of Parliament in rejecting Karzai appointees, real progress requires more systemic changes.

High-ranking public officials must be required to publicly disclose in writing, under oath, their personal and family assets (as is done by most elected and senior appointed officials in Western countries).

Rent-seeking and demands for bribes must be investigated and prosecuted according to the law, regardless of the subject’s prominence or connections. Finally, we will know that Afghanistan is well on its way to restoring stability and civil society when its citizens are not gunned down with impunity before the eyes of the police.

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