Western-style democracy endangers Afghan minorities

Coyote TSV with British, Australian & American personnel aboard in Afghanistan (Pic: Wikipedia US Marine Corps)

By Professor Clive Williams

In the wake of the Australian drawdown in Afghanistan there has been much discussion about what was achieved, whether it was worth it and whether the US-led involvement has made a long-term difference.

My sense is that if I went back in 2015 I would find some changes, but probably not of the substantive kind sought by the US and its coalition partners.

My experience of Afghanistan, apart from following it externally as an analyst, was being there with the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in 2009 and 2012.

In 2009 I was in Kabul with ISAF, and in the south in Kandahar Province with the US Army and a Canadian Provincial Reconstruction Team. In 2012 I was there again in Kabul with ISAF, in the north at Mazar-e-Sharif with the German Army, and in the northwest at Herat with the Italian Army.

I met with the American ISAF Commanding Generals, McChrystal in 2009 and Allen in 2012.  I also went to Afghan military and police training facilities, met with Afghan generals and ministers, and spent time with the very capable Afghan Special Forces. One of my more unusual meetings was with Professor Abdul Rab Rasul Sayyaf, the namesake of the Abu Sayyaf terrorist group in the Philippines.

Needless to say my impressions were mixed. I found the usual optimism at the top that all would be well in Afghanistan after the inevitable US drawdown, but there was always scepticism at the working level that national development could be sustained after the drawdown.

The political reality is that Afghanistan is a loose "federation" of sometimes adversarial ethnicities (mainly Pashtun Tajik, Hazara and Uzbek) and local tribes, with not much central control from Kabul below the province level. Nearly 80 per cent of the Afghan population lives in rural areas where local warlords often wield almost feudal power – rather like the 14th century England portrayed in World Without End.

One common feature of Afghans is that they are xenophobic, including towards people from outside their own ethnicity: infidels are generally distrusted.

Democracy is not a good fit for Afghanistan because, as in Iraq, it encourages official corruption and discrimination against minority groups. Much of what Westerners have done in Afghanistan has been selfless and praiseworthy, but we should not expect gratitude from Afghans, or the kind of future outcomes that would be our preference. We are more likely to be remembered by Afghans for the war's heavy toll on civilians. 

In Afghanistan, individual loyalty is generally to family, tribe, the local strongman and Allah, with the nation coming a long way behind – with the possible exception of the more Westernised 3.5 million residents of Kabul, the members of the Afghan National Security Forces, and Afghans who have worked for ISAF and NGOs.

Because of their history, Afghans have a keen sense of survival. The Afghan Taliban collapsed quickly in 2001, not so much because it was hated but because it was clear to its members that US Special Forces, US air power and the Northern Alliance were a tsunami force that the Taliban would not be able to stand up against.

Its local members therefore quickly switched sides to the likely winners. Traditionally in Afghanistan, if you surrender your weapon to the victors you are allowed to return home without let or hindrance.

Afghans are pragmatists and make the necessary alliances and accommodations that enable them to survive and prosper. This means local alliances between military and police commanders, the Taliban, tribal leaders, drug dealers and warlords. The balance will depend on the geographic location, with the Taliban likely to dominate in the east and south, corrupt officials in Kabul, and local warlords elsewhere. Australian forces adopted a similar expedient course in Uruzgan where they worked with unsavoury local warlord Matiullah Khan who had a reputation for corruption, brutality and duplicity – but was anti-Taliban.

The durability of the Afghan Taliban (not to be confused with the Pakistan Taliban) is because it comprises local fighters, is not corrupt, and dispenses justice in accordance with sharia law.

Most legal disputes in Afghanistan are over land. Afghans know that if they go to a government court, the judgement will favour the person who pays the highest bribe. Ironically, the government itself abides by Taliban land judgements.

The most interesting book I read during the holidays was My life with the Taliban by Taliban leader Abdul Salam Zaeef; it should be required reading for all Afghanistan analysts.

The Afghan Taliban gets bad press in the West because of its application of some of the more controversial aspects of sharia law, particularly in relation to women, and its killjoy attitude to entertainment. The more cosmopolitan residents of Kabul do not want their lives to be controlled by conservative mullahs, but the main concern of most rural Afghans is that their local leader treats them fairly and does not make their lives unnecessarily miserable. In the past they have generally fared better under Taliban leaders than they have under local warlords.

Much has been made by Australian governments about us being in Afghanistan to drive out terrorism and prevent al-Qaeda (AQ) from re-establishing itself, but today's situation is very different from what we faced in 2001. Back then, Osama bin Laden and his followers were guests of the Taliban government when they masterminded the 9/11 attacks. The Taliban was naively unaware of the blowback dangers AQ's activities posed to the Taliban's governance of Afghanistan.

Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001 soon drove the Taliban from power, and AQ out of Afghanistan into Pakistan. Since then, there has been ongoing terrorism in Afghanistan directed against ISAF forces, the Afghan government, Afghan security forces, and sometimes rival Afghan groups. It is often directed from Pakistan.

As far as I am aware, since 2001 there has been no terrorism initiated from within Afghanistan against other countries, and there seems little likelihood of that situation changing in the future.

The main terrorism danger to external countries continues to be from terrorist groups based in Pakistan – like AQ and Lashkar-e-Taiba – which run terrorist training camps in Pakistan. These have been attended in the past by Westerners, including Australians.

As with the Iraqis, the Afghans are going to have to work their future out for themselves but, whatever eventuates, Afghanistan is unlikely to become a platform for terrorism against Australia. Any continuing Australian military presence under "Operation Resolute Support" is unlikely to make a difference to that situation, and is likely to be used to justify home-grown terrorism in Australia.

 This article originally appeared in the Canberra Times.

Updated:  10 August 2015/Responsible Officer:  College General Manager, ANU College of Law/Page Contact:  Law Marketing Team