Afghans deserve a democratic system, one that is localised to them.
The fall of the Afghan Republic spelt the death of democracy in Afghanistan. It is unfortunate, though, that the only democracy Afghan people knew was a system that involved fraudulent elections, incompetent bureaucrats and rampant corruption.
The republican government used the security situation that locked them out of rural areas as an excuse to execute ghost projects and find further avenues for embezzlement instead of doubling efforts that would allow the trickle-down of development from urban centres to rural areas.
Among many other external factors, the Afghan Republic’s refusal to negotiate or settle with the Taliban, who dominated rural areas, led to the nature of the fall we witnessed more than six months ago.
The Taliban did not need to suppress its political opponents, since the abrupt fleeing of ex-president Ashraf Ghani caused many other political figures to leave the country in a scramble as well.
The military victory and the eventual political monopoly of the Taliban have emboldened it to suppress dissent and civil rights movements through abductions and taped confessions. Those of us that are discontent with the current state of affairs keep dealing with issues on an ad hoc basis without thinking of long-term solutions.
But Afghanistan deserves a democratic system—one that is localised to it. And we need to map our path to it.
As a first step, Afghans aspiring to make a difference in their country would have to establish or take charge of civil societies. They would have to make use of the improved security situation to implement projects that empower the larger rural areas both economically and politically.
Civil society in general and civil rights movements in specific are fundamental to the formation of just democracies. They create avenues for meaningful public discourse and act as a bridge linking the populations' concerns to governments. They also help prevent democratic backsliding.
Any mechanisms devised to provide platforms for public discourse and the communication of grievances to the Taliban government would hopefully rekindle the appeal of democracy and political participation among local populations.
This all leads to meaningful political participation by the population. It also helps push for legal frameworks that protect the rights of citizens.
Unfortunately, most of Afghanistan’s civil society before the Taliban takeover relied heavily on foreign donations, which caused a focus on consulting with international partners rather than connecting with local populations. The security situation further aggravated this disconnect.
These factors led the Taliban to label civil societies as proxies enacting foreign agendas, as seen in the confession they acquired from women’s rights activists they recently abducted.
There is no political opposition left in Afghanistan to push the Taliban on important issues. Though the scale of dissent is large, it is mostly informal and scattered. In addition to revamping the civil society sector, Afghans need to make strides towards political plurality by formalising this dissent. This would involve dissidents coalescing into formal groups and social movements.
This can be done outside the country until the Taliban shows a willingness to accept the return of such groups. While these groups may be labelled as foreign agents by the Taliban, it's better to keep organising within the diaspora and wait for the opportunity to return to Afghanistan when the time comes.
These social movements can create spaces by providing primary services that the state is incapable of providing, such as aid and education or, as mentioned above, creating avenues for public discourse.
Such actions would lead to acknowledgement from the Taliban and increasing trust levels. Once higher trust levels are attained, such groups can serve as viable interlocutors between the Taliban and the international community.
A civil sphere that includes civil societies, academics and formalised dissident groups would eventually negotiate pacts with the Taliban that help re-establish norms and laws within the country. This was seen in the long transition of Cuba after its revolution. Civil societies were also central to the democratic colour revolutions in Eastern Europe.
Though the power asymmetry would be in favour of the Taliban, the vital roles the different spheres play inside the country and their ability to act as viable interlocutors with the international community would be incentive enough for the Taliban to accommodate them and their demands.
The international community also has a role to play here. As I have argued elsewhere, completely sidelining and excluding the Taliban won’t make it go away. Neither will imposing only foreign solutions.
The fact that Afghanistan has tried these “international solutions” countless times over decades, yet is in its current state, speaks for itself. It is time that the international community sees its role as complementary to the organic efforts of Afghans.
Thus, the international community can lend its leverage to supporting the civil sphere—indirectly and subtly—so as to not make the civil spheres look like agents of an international agenda.
Ultimately, it is Afghans who have to transform the current post-conflict state into a more sustainable one. The political system eventually agreed upon in Afghanistan does not have to be a western-style democracy, but it cannot be a one-party autocracy either.
A mechanism has to be agreed upon so that the government is representative of the will of the Afghan people. Arriving at such an understanding with the Taliban will not be a meagre task due to the number of grievances and the scale of othering caused by 20 years of conflict, nor will it happen soon.
The success or failure of the transformation will also heavily rely on the Taliban. It would require the group to resist the urge to monopolise power or use excessive force against dissent if it hopes to stop the brain drain or truly wants educated Afghans to contribute in a meaningful way for the country. A society built in the image of a single actor’s vision has failed in Afghanistan before and will fail again.
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