Lessons from Afghanistan: Warlord politics aren’t always bad for democracy

May 13
Former Nangarhar governer Gul Agha Sherzai is well known as a political broker in the eastern Pashtun region of Afghanistan. He ran for president in 2014. (Dipali Mukhopadhyay)
Former Nangarhar governer Gul Agha Sherzai is well known as a political broker in the eastern Pashtun region of Afghanistan. He ran for president in 2014. (Dipali Mukhopadhyay)

The following is a guest post from political scientists Dipali Mukhopadhyay, of Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, and Frances Z. Brown, of the University of Oxford .

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“Without branding all generals and statesmen as murderers or thieves … a portrait of war makers and state makers as coercive and self-seeking entrepreneurs bears a far greater resemblance to the facts than do its chief alternatives: the idea of a social contract, the idea of an open market … the idea of a society whose shared norms and expectations call forth a certain kind of government.”  Charles Tilly, 1985

As Afghanistan’s election season marches on, Charles Tilly’s unsavory portrait of statesmen as “coercive and self-seeking entrepreneurs” seems eerily resonant. Observers worry that despite record turnout by voters, the campaigns featured opportunistic deals between power brokers with checkered backgrounds and that those bargains will determine the election’s ultimate outcome. Indeed, over the past decade foreigners and Afghans alike have bemoaned the slippery and self-interested machinations of Afghanistan’s ruling class. The international community has invested a great deal to help the Afghan state move toward the ideals of good governance we associate with liberal democracy in the West.  Why has progress been so halting?

Sociologists, political scientists, and economists argue that state-building has always been an untidy, often violent process in which repeated elite confrontations eventually lead to political bargains. Even when the fighting ends, of course, competition for political power continues, with muscular power persisting as the deal-maker and deal-breaker. In the above passage, political sociologist Charles Tilly was writing not about modern-day Afghanistan, but about early European states where functional governments took centuries to emerge. It is not surprising that European-style governance has not arisen in Afghanistan within a short decade.

The international community’s intervention in Afghanistan was not the first attempt to introduce democracy to a conflict-ridden country. Bold, international state-building projects have been attempted across the globe in the past several decades: the Balkans, sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, Latin America, and more recently Iraq. As the foreign-sponsored leaders in this latest incarnation of a well-established model, President Hamid Karzai and his government ticked off the boxes on the now-standard “post-conflict reconstruction” to-do list. And with foreign support, a number of institutions and processes were started that undeniably brought political representation, human rights protection and electoral participation into the relationship between Afghanistan’s government and governed for the first time.

But as is always the case, the devil is in the details. Even as the international community looked to Karzai to promote “good governance,” his own survival remained contingent on forming alliances with regional, muscular power brokers. The president performed the acts required of him as a young democrat, but he was forced to cut deals with strongmen as well. In some ways, the partnerships he forged with these men undercut the very project of democratization; on the other hand, these power players afforded him a kind of clout outside Kabul he had no other way to obtain. 

For example, Karzai appointed former warlords as governors of the key border provinces of Balkh and Nangarhar. Atta Mohammad Noor and Gul Agha Sherzai leveraged a combination of foreign support and their own security and economic means to solidify their position, strengthening the presence of the state at the periphery in the process. To the surprise of many, these warlord-commanders became the country’s two most prominent governors. They did so with a heavy hand and to their personal benefit, but their “strongman” brand of governance made the new state relevant in northern and eastern Afghanistan. To illustrate the point, Atta’s city Mazar-i Sharif had functional and (mostly) respected traffic lights long before central Kabul did.

Atta remains perhaps the most powerful backer of presidential frontrunner Abdullah Abdullah. Gul Agha Sherzai ran for the presidency himself this year and, after a poor showing in the first round, threw his weight to Abdullah, as well. Interestingly, Atta and Sherzai used their muscular power within the context of the electoral framework, rather than to simply discredit it.

On the other side of the presidential race is Ashraf Ghani, who rose to national and international prominence by confronting warlords over customs revenue in the early days of the Karzai regime. As the government’s new finance minister, his consolidation of financial capital on behalf of Kabul brought to life the very theories he espoused as a Columbia-trained academic and senior official in the World Bank.

Ten years later, after co-authoring “Fixing Failed States,” a seminal book on post-conflict statebuilding, Ghani has aligned himself with a ferocious warlord, Abdul Rashid Dostum, hoping to exploit the strongman’s ethnic Uzbek voting bloc and his ongoing influence in northern Afghan politics.

At first glance, these actions seem to run counter to the ideals of democracy and good governance as articulated by international institutions and promoted by NATO. That said, violent warlord showdowns followed by cautious and elite-driven cooperation is exactly what Tilly and other scholars of state formation suggest was key to Europe’s development. Rather than marauding in the countryside, taking what they want as they go, Afghanistan’s warlords and power brokers have bought into the electoral system and the consolidation of the central state. They see a future in winning elections, not in chopping off the heads of rivals or expanding their territory through violent conquest.

To be sure, the Afghan future holds more than strongmen and muscular rule. Other groups have emerged with the potential to bring about reform and progress. The country claims a young, urbanized elite; a cadre of dedicated, increasingly educated civil servants; and a collection of private entrepreneurs, all bolstered by a robust, growing media sector. But their timeline for influence is longer, and in some ways dependent on the consolidation of security under muscular rule.

For the coming weeks, all eyes are trained on Afghanistan’s presidential runoff. Our research and others’ offer reminders that state formation and (re)formation are often nasty, brutish, and anything but short. State-building can involve campaigning and voting but, in Tilly’s early Europe, it also involved “eliminating, subjugating, dividing, conquering, cajoling, buying as the occasions presented themselves.” These are tough words to swallow in the context of a costly, committed effort to introduce democracy to a country whose citizens seek better governance even at risk to their own lives. As the next chapter of Afghanistan’s evolution unfolds, we should remember that muscle has always had a place in the building of states; perhaps we should check back in two hundred years. 

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Please note: This guest post was updated shortly after being originally posted to better reflect the authors’ intentions.

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