The Afghan experiment and the failure of liberal democracy

Ridvan Peshkopia




Ridvan Peshkopia

Ridvan Peshkopia 400x500Beyond Afghanistan, the liberal democratic system crisis have begun to appear in the West as well. Loss of capability or even willingness to protect borders, loss of social cohesion, extreme political polarization and the downfall of confidence in own heritage, culture, tradition and values are just the earlier crisis symptoms.

Iconic images from the Kabul streets and airport testify not only the chaotic evacuation of the American and ally military, diplomatic and civilian personnel from Afghanistan. Beyond that, they show the most recent failure of Western democracies and their political and economic system as well as their socio-political model, liberal democracy. That did not need to happen if history would have served as a reference to show that the Weberian state model (according to the German sociologist Max Weber) as well as the liberal democratic political system experience difficulties in their implementation beyond Western Civilization countries.

The Weberian state model (a state with ultimate authority over territoriality, legitimacy and violence) and liberal democracy are idiosyncratic Western developments that belong to a certain stage of that civilization’s development, modernity, and their functioning beyond their specific geopolitical region and historic period is difficult. However, whereas the Weberian state model has emerged during the last two centuries as the dominant state model for most of the world (due to the international system’s reliance on that type of state), liberal democracy as a political system is being challenged in daily basis now that its societies are transitioning from modernity to postmodernity and from industrial to post-industrial societies.

Spreading liberal democracy values

But so it happened that the NATO and its allies’ military adventure in Afghanistan in October 2001 to revenge the 9/11 terrorist attacks and destroy Al Qaeda ended up as a state-building mission for Afghanistan. The political system imposed to the Afghanis (without asking them at all, of course) was liberal democracy, where women, homosexual and transgender rights took center stage, whereas national traditions as well as aspirations and desires of local population were totally ignored. Similar to other ideologically-driven military occupations, the fundamental assumption was that, since liberal democracy has worked somewhere else, it would function in Afghanistan as well.

The Western colonialist arrogance, faithful to its fundamental liberal assumption that, in state of nature, the individual is a free and rational entity, has never shown any respect for local cultures as well as aspirations and wants of individuals in other world regions. Although the atomistic philosophical category of the methodological individual, a social entity abstractly detached and independent of its own social and geographic environment has been already challenged from other, more convincing views about the human place in the world, it still represents the cornerstone of the liberal ideology and without that concept, there could be no liberal democracy.

Therefore, the Western state-building mission in Afghanistan undertook the utopic task of establishing some sort of Belgium or Denmark in a country where large swathes of the population are just emerging from the Stone Age (literally with only initial contacts with the metals). The previously unplanned state-building (in the words of the political scientist Dominic Tierney, “the Bush-Rumsfeld team believed that the U.S. military would be like a rapier that would stamp the hearts of these enemies and then we would not need to do any nation-building”) evolved out of the liberal idealistic tradition of “spreading democracy and bringing hope and defeating tyranny.” An obsession with human rights issues (even now such an obsession makes political analysts and policy makers ask the question “Can the U.S. make the Taliban care about human rights?”) overshadowed the dire need for economic reconstruction and developments, leaving until the very end the Afghan economy under foreign aid dependency.

Afghanistan’s tribal social structure became the ultimate challenge to efforts of establishing the Weberian state, since Western-driven liberal state-building relied for security on tribesmen warlords, thus hollowing out the state of the Weberian concept of state’s monopoly on violence. Whereas economic development would have served as a viable and realistic path toward structurally ushering Afghans toward modern social relationships, including unraveling of the tribal social structure, the Western ideologists followed the moralistic path of “changing hearts and minds” (an euphemism for social engineering) through human rights micromanagement, sensitivity trainings, (an euphemism for embracing Western social relationships, including inter-gender, intersex and inter-racial relationships) and meaningless and often counterproductive gender quotas.

Eksperimentot vo Avganistan i neuspehot na liberalnata demokratijaSource: pixnio.com

The (misguided) Afghan experiment

From that perspective, the Afghan social experiment was not quite different from the Soviet (or Albanian) social experiment, where the engineering of Homos Sovieticus (or the Socialist New Man in Albania) according to a theoretically presumed image became the response to the failure in practical implementation of Marxist theory. Therefore, we should not be surprised at all that the liberal experiment in Afghanistan failed as much ingloriously as the socialist experiment in the Soviet Union (and in Albania, for that matter). So much has been understood by a pragmatic leader such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin, when he seemed to have learned from the bitter Soviet experience “how counterproductive it is to try to force unnatural forms of governance and public life upon [Afghanistan]” and went on to advise the West to end its “irresponsible policy of imposing someone’s outside values from abroad”.

In order to spread liberal ideology and the life style that it propones, inefficient networks of not-for-profit organizations (NPOs) and for-profit organizations (FPOs) were established and financially stimulated through colossal means. Whereas we who have lived in transitioning societies could easily understand the inefficiency of NPOs, often trainings and projects aimed at rapid radical transformations in a society that is resisting externally imposed reforms by various foreign empires during the last 150 years turned a good chunk of the Afghan society against those efforts. As an unintended negative consequence, Western financed NPOs created unprecedented social inequalities, where a small social category that controlled them managed to build luxurious lifestyles, whereas those programs’ targeted social categories saw insignificant developments. The ever widening gap between aid actors and those they are trying to serve made aid less relevant, but also fueled feelings of distrust and perception of corruption among the Afghan public.

Talking heads are looking for causes of the West’s failure in Afghanistan, in the process throwing random comparative references to the failure of the Soviet Union to impose communism in that country. It is time for greater due diligence to those references. In essence, the failure of the American occupation of Afghanistan is not much different from the Soviet failure to impose communism in that country (indeed, similarities are glaring). In both cases, those occupations, beyond ill-perceived geostrategic interests also carried ideological tunes of grand ecumenical narratives to remake Afghanistan according to a prescribed ideological model. In both cases, laboratory efforts to mold a society according to occupiers’ theoretical models displayed a total lack of knowledge and respect for local population, its aspirations, desires and capabilities. For no matter what those aspirations, desires and capabilities were, they showed to be more powerful in determining the Afghanistan’s fate than utopian ideologies. What we are witnessing now is only a replica of what we witnessed over three decades ago: an ideological and not military defeat in Afghanistan. Just like Soviet-sponsored communist ideas before, Western-sponsored liberal ideas failed to win hearts and minds of the Afghanis, which explains the rapid Taliban takeover of the country and the utter dissolution of the Afghan Army, albeit having decently fought before against the Taliban.

Utopian Western efforts to establish a political system in a society that lacks the necessary socioeconomic structures to bolster that system showed that Western ideologists do not sufficiently know even their own liberal ideology. In the West, liberal democracy emerged as a need of its own time, as an effort to administer a rapidly industrializing society around the end of the Eighteenth and beginning of the Nineteenth Centuries. Socioeconomic transformations brought about by industrialization highlighted a new social category, the free and rational individual, just freed from the collectivity of feudal peonage, and had found its individuality in industrial jobs with individual stipends. Only then and there did the ideas of individual freedoms and rights acquired life and meaning. But in a society with tribal hierarchy such as that of Afghanistan, individual freedoms and rights are meaningless concepts. They are unrealizable freedoms and rights.

More than $USD two trillion of expenditures only by the US during the last two decades were not enough to buy a nation’s soul. Failures of social laboratory experiments in establishing social orders show that, in spite of ideologists’ universalistic promises, ideologies cannot be universal. Moreover, from a narrower perspectives, ideologies are Western inventions. Almost all major ideologies that circulate today in the world are essentially Western inventions, incubated in the social deliriums and nightmares brought about by rapid socioeconomic transformations that came with the Industrial Revolution in the turn of the Nineteenth Century. Their scientist utopias of practical implementation in shaping societies according to their mega-theories and metanarratives have failed everywhere and so they failed in Afghanistan.

The deepening crisis of liberal democracy

But beyond Afghanistan, the liberal democratic system crisis have begun to appear in the West as well. Loss of capability or even willingness to protect borders, loss of social cohesion, extreme political polarization and the downfall of confidence in own heritage, culture, tradition and values are just the earlier crisis symptoms.

Deindustrialization brought about by industry transfer to Third World countries has caused the hollowing out of the middle class, which rested on industrial jobs and production. Such a hollowing out is rapidly unraveling the social consensus over the liberal democratic political system, which was enshrined exactly with that middle class. Rapid socioeconomic polarization in the contemporary West caused by globalization, and extremely unequal distribution of its benefits only testify that the liberal democratic system has already lost its social base and still stands only due to immense wealth that the West has accumulated during the last 400 years or so.

How long would those accumulated capitals would continue to keep liberal democracy afloat remains to be seen, but we who have witnessed the collapse of the communist system could testify that, when a political system reaches its dead end, it can fold out in a matter of days, just like the Quixotic efforts to establish a liberal democratic political system in Afghanistan.


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Ridvan Peshkopia

Ridvan Peshkopia is Lecturer of Political Behavior and Research Methods with University for Business and Technology, Kosovo. He received his PhD in Political Science from University of Kentucky. He also holds Master's degrees in Urban Planning, Diplomacy, Political Science, and Applied Mathematics. He publishes regularly in academic journals on topics such as political philosophy, social theory, film studies, international relations, comparative politics, political and social psychology, research methods, criminal justice, education policy, and political behavior.