The Fall of Afghanistan shows the Failure of Democracy

As we watch the shocking videos of Kabul falling to the Taliban, the seeds that led to this disaster become clear. 

confidential effort on “Lessons Learned” conducted by the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, an agency created by Congress, painted a devastating picture of corruption, incompetence, lack of motivation and other flaws among the Afghan forces

Afghans viewed their police as “the most hated institution” in Afghanistan… The corruption was so rampant that many Afghans began to question whether their government or the Taliban was the greater evil.

Afghan power brokers — allies of Washington — plundered with impunity… the Afghan government led by President Hamid Karzai had “self-organized into a kleptocracy”… they helped destroy the popular legitimacy of the wobbly Afghan government they were fighting to prop up. With judges and police chiefs and bureaucrats extorting bribes, many Afghans soured on democracy and turned to the Taliban to enforce order… “enormous popular discontent is building” against the Afghan government because of its corruption and incompetence

And one excerpt in particular that stood out

U.S. officials tried to create — from scratch — a democratic government in Kabul modeled after their own in Washington. It was a foreign concept to the Afghans, who were accustomed to tribalism, monarchism, communism and Islamic law. “Our policy was to create a strong central government which was idiotic because Afghanistan does not have a history of a strong central government,” an unidentified former State Department official told government interviewers in 2015. “The timeframe for creating a strong central government is 100 years, which we didn’t have.”

In the west, there is a popular belief that a Democracy based on popular-vote is the best form of governance, under any and all circumstances – evidenced by the triumphant news reports covering the first elections conducted in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Unfortunately, reality is far more sobering. Democracy can indeed succeed, but requires the supporting institutions that are crucial to its success. As well as a citizenry that is well-informed and believes in democratic ideals.

Witness the collapse of the First French Republic just 12 years after the French Revolution.
And the fact that only a small fraction of American citizens (ie, landowners) were eligible to vote in the first 40 years of American elections.
And that the English parliament had existed for over 600 years before the first widespread election.

Simply taking a populace that has had negligible experience with governance, holding a popular vote, and handing over power to the winners of that popular vote… is a recipe for disaster. Something well learned by countries such as Singapore that have made the leap from 3rd world to 1st in a short period of time. To quote Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first, longest serving, and most revered Prime Minister:

“When people say, ‘Oh, ask the people!’, it’s childish rubbish … They say people can think for themselves? Do you honestly believe that the chap who can’t pass {6th grade} knows the consequences of his choice when he answers a questions viscerally on language, culture and religion? … we would starve, we would have race riots. We would disintegrate.”

Instead of handing over power overnight to a populace that hadn’t yet learned how to govern, the US administration should have taken a completely different approach. Appoint vetted Afghanis directly to key leadership positions, based on their qualifications and expertise in specific domains such as economics, national security, healthcare, education, etc. Give these appointees the authority to make decisions in their field, while also providing expert training and close oversight. Introduce democracy to the populace by first holding elections for positions with less authority, among a field of vetted candidates. And conditional on the success of the newly elected representatives, gradually open up elections to a wider range of positions, with fewer restrictions on the candidates allowed to run.

Frequent readers of this blog would be well aware of my criticisms of the current implementation of democracy. We have previously discussed how our democratic process can be vastly improved by using 21st century mathematical models for analyzing decentralized networks. Or by seeking inspiration from 19th century courtroom juries.

But for now, let us remain focused on the port-mortem of the failure in Afghanistan. This was a tremendous missed opportunity for both Afghanis and for the world. With the amount of money and manpower invested into the country, it could have been a beacon for excellence in a region that badly needs it. It could have been the South Korea of South Asia. Unfortunately, this was entirely botched by an obstinate belief in the miraculous powers of democracy.

Contrary to prevailing wisdom, populism does not translate to effective public policy. And popularity does not translate to effective leadership. It is time we stopped resting on the laurels of democracy, and started looking for ways to improve on it.