By Nushin Arbabzadah
June 21, 2014
Democracy can be a dilemma if you happen to be Afghan but not exactly a member of the nation’s kleptocratic elite.
Take the example of the rural men from Herat, who ended up hospitalised after the Taliban chopped off their index fingers to punish them for voting. There was something absurd about the fact that these men had voted as citizens of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan only to be punished for voting by the Islamic Emirate of the Taliban. Exactly whose jurisdiction applied to them, on what grounds and where?
Such questions are hardly asked, let alone answered, in Afghanistan. After all, asking them would amount to acknowledging that the Islamic Republic is only one of the many “governments” in Afghanistan.
In the same vein, democracy, too, is only one of the many types of governance there. That is why, as these rural voters discovered, a trip from their home village to the next city centre can amount to passing through at least two contradictory forms of governance. Elsewhere in Afghanistan, a similar trip might take one from the Taliban’s theocratic totalitarianism where democracy is a crime, to the mini fiefdoms of drug lords where autocracy reigns supreme to the democracy of Kabul where kleptocracy is king.
The borders separating these shadow states within the state are porous and ever shifting, which is why navigating this unofficial map of political power is central to one’s survival. The 11 martyrs to democracy learnt this truth at the cost of their index fingers. The unofficial map of political power that they had in their minds had not been in tune with the new reality of the Taliban making their presence felt in Herat.
Persian-speaking and bordering on Iran, Herat has never been a Taliban hot spot, which is why the voters were taken by surprise. But then the Taliban thrive on fear and surprise.
In the Afghan media, the tragedy of these voters was depicted as the triumph of democracy over force. But a sober interpretation tells us the uncomfortable truth that democratic rights are meaningless in a place where the state is incapable of ensuring the citizens’ very basic rights to safety.
One of the martyrs showed his bandaged hand to the camera, saying: “I hope the president will not forget what we had to go through just so to elect him.” As he uttered these words of hope and expectation, the tone of his voice betrayed doubt and desolation. If historical experience is our guide, then the man had little grounds for hope.
After all, in the collective memory of Afghans, a majority of players and sidekicks of this election are the faces of the vicious war of the early 1990s that culminated in the Taliban’s triumph in 1996. This era was of such barbaric anarchy that when the Taliban ended it in 1996, for many they appeared like divine saviours rather than a different face of fanaticism.
A decade later, interviewed on TV about the thousands of civilian casualties, Siddiq Chakari, a veteran of this war, said: “Look, this is Afghanistan. Someone throws a rocket; it hits somewhere and kills some people. Who threw the rocket or why? No one knows.”
If transparency, accountability, and human rights are the cornerstones of democracy, then we are right to think that the Mujahideen leaders – recycled and returned to power courtesy of the US invasion of 2001 – represent everything that is the opposite of democracy.
Yet, most of the names which appear on the lists of the two presidential teams, from Sayyaf to Dostum, are the very names which feature in eye-witness accounts of the civil war. It is fair to say that if Afghan democracy were real then these lists would be already on their way to the International Criminal Court where they belong. Instead, as a result of what is ultimately a perversion of democracy, they ended up in the voting booths, from Kabul to Kandahar.
This poverty of choice, that voters were left to choose from a pool of former warlords, is not surprising. Neither is the fact that every single presidential election of the last decade boiled down to a Pashtun versus a Tajik – for example, Hamid Karzai versus Abdullah Abdullah – not any Tajik, but a Tajik of the Panjshiri, Northern Alliance, and connection. Needless to say, this tediously predictable pattern speaks of the triumph of racism and identitarianism for which democracy serves as a smokescreen.
Perverting the principles of justice, transparency and accountability, the US-imported democracy of Afghanistan has done the opposite, providing legitimacy to war criminals. As such, this democracy is a political version of money laundering, a system to whitewash crimes. Switched on every five years during elections but forgotten otherwise, the democratic machinery takes in veteran leaders of racial and sectarian wars, spitting them out as besuited and bespectacled democratic representatives.
Since democracy has served as a political version of money laundering, it is not surprising that for many Afghans, the political reality can sometimes feel like a bad acid trip, complete with shape shifting creatures and lizards in suits. Watching notorious warlords with mass-graves on their conscience turn up on TV, throwing in the word democracy in every two sentences, is the kind of surreal experience that is the dubious privilege of being Afghan.
Such distortions of reality are also the reason why many Afghans doubt the sincerity of America’s democratic project, regarding it as a cynical shortcut rather than representation of American idealism in the Hindu Kush. Perhaps the international community believed that this political version of money laundering that was presented to Afghans as the gift of democracy was “good enough” for Afghans.
If there was one aspect of this election that took the world by surprise, it was the conspicuous presence of female voters, especially in the election’s photographs.
Heavily pregnant with symbolic power, these images tempted us to believe that a miracle had occurred, turning the deeply misogynist Afghan society into champions of feminism overnight.
But then, there was another report from the first round, where we saw a busload of female voters bullied into block voting. It was this report that solved the mystery of what seemed like an overnight political awakening of the average Afghan woman. It gave us an indication of the fact that the long lines of female voters did not represent a suddenly discovered respect for women’s political autonomy. On the contrary, they revealed another perversion of democracy, the fact that owing to their lack of power, women can easily be coaxed into block voting for this or that candidate.
Still, like most Afghans, a part of me feels tempted to believe in the triumphalist version of this election, the one that talks about making history and positive change. But then I recall the Afghan saying that a house built on crooked ground cannot stand straight. Perhaps the same is also true about a democracy built on unacknowledged mass-graves.
Nushin Arbabzadah is an Afghan writer, journalist and lecturer at UCLA. Her latest book is Afghan Rumour Bazaar: Secret Sub-Cultures, Hidden Worlds and the Everyday Life of the Absurd