Ask not what you can do for Bananastan, but what Bananastan can do for you


A friend of mine once got an up-close look at a general election in Abkhazia. By his account, there wasn’t much in the way of suspense, as President Ardzinba was the only candidate, so you couldn’t have made much money betting on the winner. Mind you, the whole proceedings were certified free and fair by the international observers from Kabardino-Balkaria and Nagorno-Karabakh. Retrospectively, the great thing about that sort of puppet show is that, by having the sham out in the open, it provides a nice counterpoint to the Debordian Spectacle that constitutes mature democracy.

So, as the polls have closed in Afghanistan, there’s something bracingly Third World about the puppet show over there. For one thing, just about everyone cheerfully admits that there’s been fraud on a massive scale, as befits a government that’s corrupt from top to bottom. The BBC correspondents have at least been putting a brave face on things by faithfully relaying the talking point that the fraud on various sides will cancel itself out and not affect the actual result. As if to put a scud on that, we’ve just a few days ago seen that gruesome old thug Abdul Rashid Dostam resurfacing to endorse Hamid Karzai. Since Dostam has spoken, we may assume that Karzai will win by a mile in the Uzbek-speaking provinces, where the peasants know better than to cross their chieftain. We are agog to learn just what pay-off Dostam has got in return for his support.

One expects it’ll be Karzai again in any case. The man may be a dead loss, but there’s nobody else credible. Just in the final stages the foreign media have been puffing the pseudo-reformist candidate, the splendidly named Dr Abdullah Abdullah, which suggests they haven’t learned much from Iran. It’s not likely that a former sidekick of the fundamentalist warlord Ahmed Shah Massoud is any sort of genuine reformist, as opposed to a huckster who wants to score some more patronage for the Tajiks. But then, the ability to cut a dash on CNN counts for a lot.

Further evidence of the charade is that the Yanks and Brits lost faith in Karzai a long time ago, since he’s managed to be both ineffective in his formal role as president and a downright pain in the hole in his informal role as leader of a vassal state. During the Bush administration, there was some desultory talk of getting Bush’s UN ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, an American citizen of Afghan descent, and drafting him in to be president. This never got off the ground, probably because Khalilzad was none too anxious to swap New York for Kabul – and who could blame him? Then there was the Brits’ plan to send Paddy Ashdown, the former Liberal Democrat leader turned King of Bosnia, to Afghanistan as an imperial proconsul – a plan thoughtlessly vetoed by Karzai.

So it looks like they’re stuck with old Karzai for the time being. We shall see in due course if the rumblings from Washington about reducing him to a figurehead and appointing a more amenable “chief executive” amount to anything more than the previous Baldrickesque plans.

Apropos of this, there is the question that lots of commentators have been asking – namely, whether it’s possible to have a democracy in Afghanistan. Well, the current House of Warlords is a pretty poor excuse for a functioning democracy. But is it possible? Why not? I don’t believe the Afghan people are congenitally incapable of running an effective state, much as history suggests they haven’t often had one. Democracy, of course, is not just a matter of making your mark on the ballot paper, there’s also the issue of the lack of an effective civil society. But then, if civil society means lots of “civil society” NGOs funded by the Americans, the EU and the Soros Foundation… Eastern Europe is full of those guys, and the thing that strikes you is that you’ll see conferences on Roma rights going on with very few Roma in attendance, and at the end the situation of the Roma hasn’t been much advanced, but everyone has had a pleasant lunch and got their grant application packs. That’s a luxury Afghanistan can’t afford, and the fact that NGOs in the country are mostly doing humanitarian relief is probably for the best.

No, of course you can have a democracy in Afghanistan, it’s just questionable whether, given the country’s social mores and history, you can have a liberal democracy. If you’ll forgive me returning to a well-worn theme, the classic mistake liberals make is to confuse the democratic process with liberal outcomes. When democracy leads to illiberal outcomes, the liberals start screaming about “populism” and demanding that liberal outcomes be imposed from above. That’s why the bright idea of sending Paddy Pantsdown to Afghanistan – the liberal dictatorship he ran in Bosnia would fit in well with the liberal idea of bringing progressive politics to Afghanistan.

On the other hand, let’s take as an example the reactionary Shia marriage law that foreign observers have been getting so het up about. One thing that can’t be stressed enough is that this law did not emerge from Karzai’s left ear, but is a direct product of what’s a very limited form of democracy. That is, the political and religious leaders of the Hazara community had demanded the marriage law. The old communist government wouldn’t have stood for such a thing, but Karzai needs votes, and is aware that the Shia clerics are as good at delivering Hazara votes as General Dostam is at delivering Uzbek votes.

So, do you stand for democratic process or liberal outcomes? It’s not a problem if you’re a non-interventionist – you can just lend solidarity to the people who are fighting for values you identify with, if you can find such people. But it does pose a terrible dilemma for those who think it’s the job of imperial armies to go around setting up liberal democracies in every corner of the world.


  1. Thomas Byrne said,

    August 22, 2009 at 12:46 am

    Good point about liberals whinging about the results if it’s one they don’t like, people seem to disreard that our old Godwins Law friend was elected via it.

    (Although of course they blame the Treaty of Versailles, but it doesn’t keep the institution immune despite what they say.

  2. Mark P said,

    August 22, 2009 at 4:00 am

    One of the things I’ve always been curious about is what happened to the PDPA’s base. They never had majority support in the country as a whole, but they did have a large mass base, particularly in the cities. Is there anything left there at all?

  3. splinteredsunrise said,

    August 22, 2009 at 12:08 pm

    I assume some of them are still about, but keeping a low profile. Except for Dostam, who has managed to parlay his ethnic base to his advantage.

    The most visible Afghan leftists are the Maoists of RAWA, who do still have a presence in the refugee camps and are doing some useful work inside Afghanistan.

  4. charliemarks said,

    August 23, 2009 at 2:24 am

    In a situation in which there’s been rule by the Talibs, then rule by Nato, then growing rule by Talibs – I doubt there’s much possibility of socialist groups sustaining themselves, let alone growing….

    What a farce we now have – low turnout, massive fraud, and both the main candidates claiming victory.

    The other day reading a Conan Doyle story I was reminded that Sherlock Holmes’ side-kick Dr Watson fought in Afghanistan… Yes, the Brits have been here before – but how many of the poor young soliders being sent to die their have any knowledge of this?

  5. johng said,

    August 24, 2009 at 10:47 am

    Just reading Ahmed Rashid’s book “descent into chaos”. He supported the initial war and then became disillusioned by the failure of nation-building and lack of “US commitment”. A pretty establishment take (UN wing) in other words. But its empirically detailed and a useful read. One thing to understand is that in whole areas of Afghanistan there is no experiance of state government and no real wish for it either given the historical experiance of the state (whatever ideological flavour the experiance of the rural population has been much the same). This is not just true of Afghanistan but whole swathes of the world (in fact right next door you have the same long term historical situation in the semi-autonomous regions in Pakistan). In such situations its not really the ‘values’ of any particular government that matters but the attempt to extend governance by the state which is often rejected. I think its a mistake to see this as simply the product of “tradition” or on the other hand a set of values incompatible with liberal democracy (or indeed “civil society” which includes internalisation of a set of values which at bottom involve recognising the State as a legitimate actor in society). Its the product of an atrocious history of the modern global capitalism and its impact on some of the poorest and most marginal people in the world. Can liberal capitalism solve their problems or really offer a way out? Can variants of the same with guns and tanks (ie the brutal experiance of the supposedly ‘reforming’ leftists who took power in the 70s)? There are few signs that those who have experianced this history have any desire to join it. I’m not sure what socialists can do about this, but I suspect its our job to ensure that our states don’t make their suffering any worse then it is. Its just extraordinary when you think of the historical experiance of the mass of the rural population over the last few hundred years. An endless nightmare of suffering and war.

  6. August 24, 2009 at 4:31 pm

    good text on the topic: Farooq Sulehria – Villains and clowns dominate Afghan electoral theatre

  7. Nechayev said,

    August 27, 2009 at 12:57 pm

    Re the PDPA, the Western left by and large didn’t like the actually existing left in Afghanistan, preferring a lot of bearded wonders combining the intellectual horizons of the 14th century with CIA funding and modern Stinger missiles.

    There is no Afghan left now. You should be proud of this success. Instead of asking , “Where are they now?”

  8. Nechayev said,

    August 27, 2009 at 6:28 pm

    Some PDPA (or Vatan Party, as it was called later) members were killed, like former leader Najibullah and his brother were, when the Taliban entered Kabul. There were gruesome pictures of their mutilated bodies being hung up. Some had fallen victim to mojahedin earlier. Others have probably lain low, since attempts at organised political activity are highly dangerous when you have opponents in government who are ruthless, as both the corrupt mojahedin gangs and the Taliban have shown themselves to be.

  9. Mark P said,

    August 27, 2009 at 8:52 pm

    Hang on a second, Nechayev. “Some sections of the Western left” may well have cheered on the reactionaries, but many did not.

  10. Nechayev said,

    August 28, 2009 at 5:32 am

    The likes of Socialist Organiser (now the AWL) certainly did. It makes an interesting comparison with what they now say about heavily armed Muslims, but I digress. Nor was it unique to them.

    You could say Soggie Oggie was an extreme example, though it was less eccentric in Western left terms than the Sparts’ actual enthusiasm for Soviet intervention in Afghanistan.

    I could never pin the SWP down over it but they seemed to not like any of the forces in play. “Neither Washington nor Moscow, but paper-selling in countries where it won’t get you killed”. It is true that it was hard to portray the mojahedin as in any way, shape or form the left, but equally the Western left by and large ran a mile rather than support the actions of either the USSR or its presumed local collaborators, even though the latter were the Afghan political left, to all intents and purposes. It might perhaps be fairer to say that this attitude, rather than the outright Schachtmanism of SO, was the dominant one.

  11. johng said,

    August 28, 2009 at 11:21 am

    This bizarre moralism seems to co-exist with a distinct lack of any real interest in the countries concerned. The idea that the “western left” are somehow responsible for the tragedy of Afghanistan is ridiculous. Its very unclear why supporters of the Soviet intervention in the late 1970s would oppose US intervention today. Is it perhaps that the US has yet to kill enough Afghan peasents?

  12. Nechayev said,

    August 28, 2009 at 12:20 pm

    I wouldn’t accuse the Western left of actually being responsible for events in Afghanistan. That would be to grossly exaggerate its influence, for one thing. The Western left’s biggest crime is its irrelevance, at a time of resurgent fascism.
    Bizarre moralism? Is morality, in itself, bizarre? It is true that morality can cut down on your range of tactical options. For example It might inhibit you from suddenly calling for unity on the left, after spending years undermining it, because you’re embarrassed by the obvious U-turn.

  13. johng said,

    August 28, 2009 at 1:47 pm

    as stated, those arguing this position have no interest in peasents in afghanistan. oddly they are fixated with the entirely irrelevent forces of the ‘western left’. Even more oddly they would be quite incapable of having a meaningful conversation about almost anything else.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: