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How liberal values became a business in Afghanistan


Over the last two decades, the United States injected millions of dollars and deployed over 700,000 troops aimed at counterinsurgency and planting the seeds of liberal values and democracy in Afghanistan. But liberal values did not blossom in the society, nor did democratic processes take root in US-funded institutions, including the Afghan government.

This legacy has put the Biden administration in an awkward position: It must decide whether to support the liberal values in the proposed political settlement or ignore them and get out. Because Afghanistan lacks both an organic civil society and institutions that could shape the political settlement in favor of a democratic dispensation, the United States—if it chooses not to cut and run—now has the chance to push for a democratic sphere that would actually allow Afghans to shape their political fate.

In his memoir, The Envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, who remains the torchbearer of US policymakers focused on Afghanistan, wrote that he told then-US President George W. Bush in 2002: “We can’t fix our problems without helping them fix their problems.” In the following years, the US government injected millions of dollars trying to fix Afghanistan in the name of “state-building”—setting up new social and political structures in the country.

After the United States established a pop-up government and constitution in Kabul, engineering civil society from the scratch came next. While a thriving civil society in most democratic countries is seen as unpaid social and political activism and hailed as the backbone of democracy, the US government paid Afghans to set up nongovernmental organizations. The NGOs held workshops and seminars, teaching Afghans about liberal values.

Instead of using local resources and civil society, the artificial civil society created by US money flourished as long as the funds poured into the country. “Local councils were altogether sidelined,” said Omar Sadr, a political science professor at the American University of Afghanistan. “The new civil society was not organic. They were accountable only to the donors, rather than to Afghanistan.”

The first group of NGOs moved from Peshawar, Pakistan, to Kabul in the early 2000s. The organizations had previously worked for Afghan refugees in Peshawar and were able to secure funds to implement projects that intended to promote values such as women rights and human rights. The US government spent $787 million to support women’s rights with little result, according to a congressional watchdog which found high maternal mortality rates, widespread gender-based violence, and limited access to healthcare and education for women.

Working for liberal values turned into a business. Any group of educated people could launch an NGO, draft proposals for US and other foreign funds, and implement a six-month project. Real estate companies and landlords thrived on the rents that organizations paid in Kabul. The NGOs paid fees for participants, rather than the other way around. Attending workshops about human rights, in essence, became a job.

“The values did not reach the bottom of the society,” said Mir Hamza Murshid, a participant in many of these workshops. “I never forgive those who misused the resources.” 

The business inflicted huge damage to Afghan society. Many of the NGOs went to villages and corrupted the century-old traditions of community service. One practice is known as “assembling”: people gather and work to resolve an issue facing their community. The NGOs paid people for assembling on a project for which they had secured funding. After that, people began hesitating to do community service—asking: Why should we work for free when we can be paid?

It had an impact on student activism, too. As the artificial NGO business flourished over the last two decades, young Afghans came of age learning that activism could be profitable as long as you steer clear of controversial causes. In 2013, 300,000 Afghans graduated from high schools, and in 2017, 50,000 Afghans graduated from universities. The tally has been increasing each year. In the absence of funding for antiwar organizations, there has not been even one student-led nationwide protest against the war, despite the fact that Afghanistan has been plagued by war for 40 years and loses an estimated 20 young men in battle every day since 2001.

Between 2001 and 2014, the US-funded government of President Hamid Karzai signed up for multiple liberal international laws and copy-pasted liberal laws from Western countries, without institutionalizing the democratic values and processes that would support an organic civil society and democracy in the country. In 2019, 1.8 million people out of approximately 9 million registered voters cast ballots the presidential elections; 300,000 votes were contested, and both President Ashraf Ghani and his challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, declared victory and held competing swearing-in ceremonies in March 2020.

In recent years, the Afghan government has approved amendments to reverse the copy-pasted legal foundations of the open and free social and political sphere in the country. The efforts by the US-funded government have aimed to expand its control and limit influence of NGOs, crushing the civil society and damaging the civic voice of Afghans. The intelligence unit of the Economist ranked Afghanistan as an authoritarian regime in 2021.

“From one side, the government was facing a military conflict. On the other side, rather than seeing the civil society as a partner, the government saw the civil society as a foe,” Sadr, the political science professor, said.

In 2017, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani approved amendments to the law on demonstrations and strikes. The law sets conditions that essentially make it impossible for people to hold protests. It prohibits demonstrations that create traffic jams, it allows the government to arrest the demonstrators on charges of working for anti-national interests, and, in an unusual move, it allows the police to refuse permission for demonstrators in the name of security.

In 2020, the Afghan government introduced amendments to the law on nongovernmental organizations. The first draft, seen by Foreign Policy, dropped the term “independence” from defining the NGOs and proposed conditions that made it harder to secure funds. The draft was rejected by nongovernmental organizations as well as embassies of Western countries in Kabul. The second draft is still under review.

“The current government is in love with control and authority, showing off that they are in full control of everything in Kabul and nobody is here to challenge them,” said Jawad Zawulistani, the managing director of the Afghanistan Human Rights and Democracy Organization, an NGO in Kabul.

As the peace talks progressed, the Afghan government portrayed itself as a defender of liberal values against the extremist Taliban, who seek to build an Islamic emirate. Many fear that the government uses the liberal values as a cover for its attempt to gain the upper hand in power-sharing with the Taliban. “As long as the values serve their interests, the values are defended,” Zawulistani said. “We are dealing with two unprincipled groups that seek to monopolize power.”

The Taliban, on the other hand, have shown little willingness to compromise on their hard-line Islamism. Over the course of two years of efforts to gain international legitimacy, spokesmen for the Taliban have talked about their commitment to respect women’s rights, human rights, and freedom of speech “in the light of Islam.” The light of Islam, however, meant the Taliban’s interpretation of Islam rather than liberal values.

The United States is now facing the dilemma of whether to withdraw from the country and end the conflict without giving up on liberal values, especially democracy. As the United States is portraying itself, again, as a defender of democracy in a world where democracy is in retreat, the Biden administration has leverage to push for democracy in the political settlement between the Afghan government and the Taliban.

Experts argue that neither the Afghan government nor the Taliban can govern Afghanistan without US money. Afghan liberals argue that the money should be conditioned on the commitment of power brokers to respect a democratic sphere, allowing young Afghans to form grassroots civil society groups that will thrive in the long run.

The alternative is grim: Without genuine US support for liberal values, the country is set to go back to the Taliban era—this time with the current Afghan government as part of the Taliban regime.