Afghanistan: Warlords and Democracy
Image Credit: REUTERS/Caren Firouz

Afghanistan: Warlords and Democracy

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Last month marked the first ever peaceful transition of political power in Afghanistan’s long history. Ashraf Ghani, along with his two vice-presidents, was officially inaugurated in a ceremony in Kabul that was attended by dignitaries and officials from around the world. This was a momentous occasion for both the people of Afghanistan and the Western world, which has invested so much blood and treasure in creating a democracy in this country. Afghanistan has experienced its share of violent conflict and disorder, causing it to remain among the world’s poorest and most underdeveloped countries. However, with all its problems and anticipated challenges ahead, the country has a chance at a new beginning, with a new president. But what tends to get overlooked in all this is the role of strongmen – often referred to as warlords – in the democratization of the state.

The Afghan strongmen – much maligned and not fully understood – have received the most negative attention when it comes to an analysis of Afghan politics. Although war and conflict breed tragedies and destruction, in the Afghan context the ”warlord” has historically stood to replace missing government functions and provide services – most importantly security. During Afghanistan’s decades of conflict, it has been ”major warlords,“ better described as regional ethnic or political leaders, who protected and secured large swaths of the country from other regional leaders, or from the brutal Taliban regime and its terrorist affiliates.

All of Afghanistan’s major warlords have come from military backgrounds and ruled through ethnic, linguistic or regional cleavages. Afghanistan has historically been governed at the local level with strong connections to tradition social structures. The period after 2001 created a state that was extremely centralized, where power and authority ran through Kabul. However, as President Hamid Karzai and the international community quickly realized, the warlords served a purpose, and were a much needed ally in the post-conflict period as they provided both political and military stability in varying capacities. This center-periphery relationship has been a central factor in the longevity and influence of strongmen and warlords.

The two leading candidates in the 2014 presidential election had as running mates influential strongmen who were essential to both candidates’ tickets. Ghani’s inauguration also included two vice-presidents, General Abdul Rashid Dostum and Sarwar Danish. Danish is an academic from the ethnic Hazara community, while Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek, is a military figure with arguably the longest presence in Afghan politics. He is also the figure who has received the most attention with respect to “warlordism” in Afghanistan. However, Dostum how shown that he is just as able a politician as he was a military figure.

Warlords would never be expected to be democrats, but some have shown that they are able to participate without violence in democracy – ultimately strengthening the state’s democratic process. It is undeniable that such figures were central not only to generating millions of votes, but were also responsible for ensuring the relatively peaceful nature of the political process.

Ghani has proven to be an impressive thinker with great attention to detail and the ability to organize difficult situations. However, the success of Ghani and his team had as much to do with his technical abilities and rational-legal authority as it did with the role of his first vice-president, Dostum, who was able to fill the traditional leadership role as described by sociologist Max Weber.

It was therefore this combination of the rational-legal and traditional “warlord” authority that allowed Ghani to be successful, ultimately resulting in his presidency. It is hard to deny that the president would not have been elected without the support of Dostum and the political party of Junbish with which he is associated. Junbish is considered the most organized and effective of Afghanistan’s political parties, and it brought political experience and valuable networks to Ghani’s campaign efforts. Dostum was exceptionally successful in consolidating voters from the northern provinces, a deciding factor in Ghani’s election. In addition, the largest campaign rallies, which saw tens of thousands of Afghans peacefully gather to hear the president and his team, were not in the eastern or southern regions from where his support base stems, but in the provinces where Dostum has the greatest support.

It should also be noted that after the conflict period the major regional leaders such as Dostum, Mohammad Mohaqiq, and others organized themselves politically, while moving away from armed politics and accepting democracy as the system of governance. Since such figures still maintained a monopoly over violence in their respective territories, they seemed uninterested in the violence of the past and were more interested in democratic politicking as a path to legitimacy. Such actions included strengthening their political parties, organizing their constituents, developing policies and presenting reformed ideas on many issues. This interaction between “warlord politics” and democracy is what I will call the Warlord-Democracy Nexus — a transition of warlords from fighters to politicians. Moreover, the recent allegations of fraud were not directed at Afghan strongmen: Rather, it was the political elites on both sides, as well as former government officials, who were accused. This fact goes against the supposed conventional wisdom regarding warlords, which views such strongmen as being able to only rule through coercion, violence and corruption. This may be the case for some Afghan strongmen, but as Columbia University political science professor Dipali Mukhopadhyay reminds us, “not all warlords are created equal.”

The involvement of strongmen and warlords is of course not the ideal situation for post-conflict state building and democratization; however, such figures have shown to be effective partners in this process. Warlords were able to guarantee representation for their communities, instilling a level of political participation in which warlords became legitimate leaders for many before the state.

As Afghanistan enters a new era of politics with its first peaceful transition of power, it is important to remember the transition many strongmen have also undertaken to consolidate the country’s democracy. Dostum and others have shown they are survivors in the complex environment of Afghan politics. As much as some would have preferred not to have seen strongmen in such positions, the realities of post-conflict state building argue that such figures cannot be underestimated, especially when they have the support of millions of Afghans. The most peaceful and effective process would be to encourage the participation of strongmen through a political process where armed politics is outlawed. This would allow for the moderation of  “warlord politics,” which would create an atmosphere of political competition that would replace armed competition. Such political competition would not be possible without the involvement of powerful former armed actors.

As Ghani assumes the mantle at this historic time for Afghan democracy, the role of some strongmen in this process should not be overlooked or minimized. Focusing on their positive capacities will help move the country forward, and questioning their negative actions will help keep their power in check. The warlord-democracy nexus was summarized by Ghani in an April 3 interview with Al Jazeera. In reference to Dostum, Ghani stated,

“When charismatic leaders emerge from history, they become more than the embodiment of their individual beings. People literally have walked two days to touch him. One has to have respect and harness that energy that is now focused on the individual to a collective process of building institutions. We are two strong men, we can work together.”

The notion of harnessing both the energy and influence of strongmen in post-conflict states is understood as being essential to both peace and stability. The democratization of Afghanistan has been facilitated by certain strongmen who have decided to participate democratically in state building. The Afghan experience has shown that strongmen are capable of embracing democracy and can be relatively effective at providing the political and military stability necessary for moving the political process forward from warfare to compromise.

Sohrab Rahmaty is pursuing an MA in political science at the University of Guelph.

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