October 31, 2016
The latest Afghan reconstruction watchdog report reveals that billions of dollars’ worth of U.S. stabilization programs have failed to, well, stabilize Afghanistan – whatever that word really means. Many of us know that “stabilization” in the context of Western post-invasion state-building endeavors is really code for capitalistic democratization. In fact, many involved have a legitimate deep-seated belief that with democracy comes stability, which, as the real-world case study called Afghanistan shows, is just not true.
An audit released a day ahead of the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction’s (SIGAR) quarterly report minced no words about the abject failure of USAID stabilization programs.
“USAID spent more than $2.3 billion on more than two dozen stabilization activities and programs in Afghanistan,” SIGAR said in a press release on October 29. The release explained that the initiatives were unsuccessful overall as implemented while a third-party assessment revealed that “insurgents targeted programs in areas where the Afghan government was in control.” In short, these stabilization projects actually destabilized certain areas – the exact opposite of their stated purpose.
The main problem revolves around the fact that stabilization and Western-style democracy are closely linked in the minds of reconstruction planners. Look no further than the October 6 Brussels Communique issued by 75 countries and 22 international donors which calls on Afghanistan to implement modern political and economic reforms in exchange for a $15.2 billion aid package. The document definitively claims that democratic elections will stabilize the country.
“Credible, inclusive and transparent elections will lead to greater political stability, and strengthen sustainable democracy in Afghanistan,” the Communique states. “Effective democratic and inclusive governance in accordance with the Constitution remains essential for our partnership.”
In a speech on October 5, Secretary of State John Kerry directly urged Afghan leaders to appoint electoral authorities and “unveil a realistic timeframe for parliamentary elections.”
“The right to choose one’s government representatives through credible, free, and fair elections belongs to each and every Afghan,” Kerry claimed, apparently speaking on behalf of the entire country.
It doesn’t take an exegisist to read between the lines here: Either get on board the democracy-building agenda and implement these reforms or Afghanistan risks losing billions in desperately-needed development aid.
Since 2002 the United States has appropriated $32.8 billion on governance and development initiatives inside Afghanistan, according to SIGAR’s figures, with not an insignificant amount going towards democracy-building efforts. Outside the aforementioned “stabilization” programs, USAID reported spending more than $390 million on “democracy and governance” activities in 2015 alone. Some of the projects were specifically designed to reconstruct “national governing institutions and systems,” as part of an effort to “incorporate principles of democracy.” Much of the money was used on voter and civic education and training election officials to ensure the Afghans would elect their leaders and run their government in Western fashion.
Hindering the argument on whether democracy begets stability is the fact no one really knows what “stability” means. But many scholars have tried to define it, including political scientist Professor Leon Hurwitz in a paper back in 1973. Hurwitz claims that stability “means the absence of violence, governmental longevity, the absence of structural change, legitimacy, and effective decision-making.” Notice the word democracy is nowhere in this definition; and also notice that Afghanistan meets none of the criteria.
Another problem, according to a paper by Willemijn Verkoren and Bertine Kamphuis, is that Western planners believe democracy implemented alongside a capitalist economy is the best formula for stability. However, the Americans have so far utterly failed to mirror Afghanistan to a market democracy.
Capitalism itself, they explain, is the outcome of specific historical and geographical circumstances that cannot be replicated easily in Afghanistan. Verkoren and Kamphuis characterize Afghanistan as an aid-dependent “weak rentier state” ill-prepared for a Western-style capitalistic system. Further, they claim more aid ownership and a strengthening of the Afghan bureaucracy will only “consolidate aid rentierism rather than reverse-engineer a market democracy.”
Lucy Morgan Edwards, a former advisor to the EU Ambassador in Kabul, says Western intervenors have failed to distinguish between limited and open access political orders. Edwards explains that open systems structure access to political and economic opportunities “competitively via markets, merit, and elections,” while in a limited system like Afghanistan’s, access is confined to elites dissuaded from fighting one another because they are better off participating in a patrimonial network. Hence, reforms that the U.S. is trying to implement threaten the rent-creation that holds the society together.
This is not to suggest that a patrimonial rentier model is the ideal form of government, but that it will take a transition period to achieve the most desired end game, which the Afghans should have been afforded the opportunity and given the political space to articulate. One thing we do know: A free market democratic “government in a box” imposed from without has not brought to Afghanistan a scintilla of “stability” – as defined or measured by any metric available.