Afghanistan: a legitimacy failure

In response to the insightful and thought-provoking articles by Jean-Paul Faguet and Rajesh Venugopal on democracy in Afghanistan, this piece by Florian Weigand argues that the West failed to build a state with wide-spread legitimacy. Below the surface of democracy, rent seeking and corruption spread, and a bloody ‘War on Terror’ continued, ultimately empowering the Taliban. Nonetheless, it wasn’t all failure.
This article is part of a series on the ID blog, ‘Afghanistan: After the fall‘, and ID is hosting a panel discussion, ‘The implosion of the Afghan State: what next for women and the nation?‘ for the first event in the 2021-22 Cutting Edge Issues in Development lecture series on Friday 1 October.
A remote rentier state

While Democratic institutions, such as elections, were quickly established after the 2001 intervention in Afghanistan, they often remained shell structures. But, I would argue, that this did not occur due to the religious or cultural organisations that shape Afghan society. Below the surface of a democratic narrative, Afghanistan became a rentier state dependent on international aid. Without much local accountability, the structure benefited a small elite and its patronage networks, previous warlords as well as foreigners. Much of the money pumped into Afghanistan did not remain in the country but ended up back in the West, through international contractors as well as elites with bank accounts abroad. Meanwhile, much of the state and its international supporters remained hidden behind blast walls and the windows of armoured vehicles, far away from the reality of Afghans. Most ordinary civilians, especially those away from Kabul and other urban centres, neither benefited much from this remote new state nor had a say in it.

Legitimising the Taliban

In many ways, the state building agenda only scratched the surface of society and failed to create the necessary interconnectedness between state and society that JP, in his piece, describes as essential for successful democracies. Even worse though, where the state and its citizens did interact it often was in a negative way, through corruption. As it had become a common practice to having to pay for government jobs, the corruption at the top of the state translated into corruption at the bottom of hierarchy, at the level where it faces the public. When interacting with the state, for instance in courts, at checkpoints or when applying for an ID card, Afghanistan’s citizens were routinely asked for bribes. This made it easy for the Taliban to portray themselves as an alternative authority, supposedly less corrupt and more legitimate.

State building or War on Terror?

The intervention in Afghanistan in 2001 was justified by several narratives – including ‘fighting terrorism’, ‘building democracy’ and ‘enforcing human rights’. This resulted in a mix of often competing and conflicting agendas and practices on the ground. Rajesh in his piece illustrates how building a democratic state in Afghanistan was a tool to achieve Western security interests. However, regardless of objectives and intentions, the War on Terror that turned Afghanistan into a battlefield severely undermined the objective of statebuilding in Afghanistan. While the cities faced attacks by the Taliban, many rural communities across the countries were severely affected by drone strikes and house raids by the Afghan state and its international allies, resulting in fear and, frequently, civilian casualties. Here, the war undermined any belief or hope in the new state, further helping the Taliban to justify their battle against the state and its international supporters.

But: not just failure

But, concluding, it is also key to note that even though there certainly was a lot of failure in Afghanistan, important elements of democracy did evolve in the country after 2001. Most importantly, a civic space opened, including a vibrant, diverse, and critical media landscape. This was not an achievement of the West. It was Afghans, who used and filled the space that opened when the Taliban government fell, establishing substantive elements of democracy. The Taliban’s actions of the past week indicate that they are attempting to close this space again. Hence, perhaps, it was a short-term success only – but people are pushing back despite the international withdrawal as, for instance, Afghan journalists are trying to keep on working, fighting for civil space in the new Taliban-controlled state.

The views expressed in this post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of the International Development LSE blog or the London School of Economics and Political Science. You can read more articles in this series, ‘Afghanistan: After the fall’ here.

Photo credit: Cherie Cullen on Wikimedia Commons.


Afghanistan: a legitimacy failure