Democracy Didn’t Fail in Afghanistan, Anti-Democratic Liberalism Did

September 1, 2021
September 21, 2022
Middle East

Over the past few weeks, it has become popular to mock the idea that the United States tried for 20 years to build a “democracy” in Afghanistan, with many commentators on both sides of the aisle noting the supposed futility of attempting to foist such a political system on a “tribal” society. But the truth is that Americans did not try to impose democracy on Afghanistan — they tried to impose liberalism, and the fact that few Americans were able to see the difference explains everything about why we failed.

To begin to understand what went wrong, consider a tweet from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul last June. Just weeks before Afghanistan collapsed into mayhem, the American Embassy tweeted an image of a rainbow flag with the following message:


It is not the time or the place to discuss the merits of the U.S. goal to build a tolerant and inclusive Afghanistan. For all its flaws, the Afghan state that the U.S. and its allies maintained for the last twenty years was a freer, more prosperous, and happier place for tens of millions, not least women and members of sexual minorities. But it is worth considering priorities. Many of those now bemoaning the failure of the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan point to what it means for those groups, with the suggestion being that the goal of American intervention was not to build democracy, but rather to build democracy so that women’s rights and gay rights could be protected.

This betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of democracy, one that afflicts much of the left and center of the political spectrum across the West. Democracy, quite simply, is governance by people. It is a system of government where the people exercise control over their government. At its most basic, it is value-neutral. As with capitalism, the assumption is that on net the process will ensure that, over time, the people will be right more often than they are wrong, not least if Democracy allows them to change their minds and take responsibility for their mistakes. But as with capitalism, it does not ensure, nor does it promise, that every decision in every case will always be right, much less right for every single person. Life has winners and losers.

Constitutions like the American one exist to regulate this competition, not to predetermine the outcome. Those liberals and leftists who condemn the U.S. Constitution for not outlawing slavery, or more absurdly given the time and context of 1787, guaranteeing gender equality or prohibiting “hate speech,” fail to understand that it exists not to resolve disputes over issues where individuals held genuinely differing positions, but instead to create a framework through which they could be peacefully resolved. That meant that the task of the farmers was not trying to solve every problem, but merely creating a process through which disagreements could be resolved over time.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, constitutionalism was seen as an antidote to political and legal anarchy, and a way of avoiding rapid shifts in policy and avoiding winner-take all conflicts such as those over the role of the Catholic Church which shattered Germany and France, or slavery in the U.S.  By and large, it succeeded. Conflicts were endemic to the politics of France, the United States, and Britain, but amazingly, the American Civil War was virtually the only time anyone sought to resolve them outside of the system. It was not a weakness of the American Constitution that both slaveholders and abolitionists, Catholics and Protestants, farmers and bankers could all sign the same document. It was the strength of the document that such diverse groups could agree to work within it.

Sadly, all of this wisdom seemed lost when it came to the Americans who designed the constitutions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Afghanistan and Iraq did not need to decide the contours of gender equality or the exact definition of marriage in order to be reconstructed into viable states. They needed systems which all the key parties in the state, Sunni and Shia, as well as varying ethnic groups, could all agree to accept. In both cases, what prevented this goal from being realized was not the unwillingness of locals to work within such systems, but that from the start the Westerners who designed the new constitutions rejected the principles that had served America so well.

Americans did not try to find a system that appealed to Afghans and Iraqis, accepting that many Iraqis and Afghans valued their Islamic faith and culture and did not want the schools they paid for promoting lessons insulting to their values. Western liberals instead foolishly wrote their own values into the constitutions themselves, overriding any future efforts by the voters of either country to reverse them.

This is hardly surprising. Constitutionalism in the liberal academic context, informed by Critical Legal Theory, the predecessor of Critical Race Theory, serves only to promote anarchy and not order in society. A living constitution is a constitution which is different tomorrow than it was yesterday, rendering the entire premises of common law and precedent useless and defeating the purpose of providing certainty. The “living constitution” provides arbitrary powers to judges and unelected bureaucrats and limits the power of elected politicians and the voters themselves.

Unfortunately, this was the version of “constitutionalism” which the United States exported to Iraq and Afghanistan. In other words, it was not democracy at all, thwarting the establishment of the rule of law. This could have been accomplished by maximizing the power of the elected branches of government, encouraging the formation of political parties, and undermining the influence of the executive both directly and through the judges and civil servants appointed by the executive.

Instead, American academics did the reverse. Not trusting the people of those countries, they effectively wrote the people’s preferences out of the new Afghan and Iraqi constitutions. Those documents – very long on what the governments could and couldn’t do – effectively crippled democracy by inhibiting the ability of the people to govern themselves. Afghanistan’s local governors were appointed by the President, not elected; the parliament was designed to prevent the formation of political parties; the ministers and judges were accountable to the President, as was the electoral commission. The Afghan peoples never had a say in their democratic state, for fear that they would vote in illiberal values.

Maybe this allowed American journalists and academics to pat themselves on the back with how progressive their constitution was, but it also ensured that the Afghan system of government they created could never work. For Afghans, local school boards had no power over local curriculum. American officials might say that this prevented ethnically and religiously focused education and ensured the rights of minorities were taught, but it also meant that Afghans faced a choice between allowing government schools to teach that material or allowing the Taliban to teach it. Empowering local elected officials or school boards to set curriculum, even if mildly Islamic, might have encouraged Afghans to take part in elections and strive to make their government work. Instead, we told them that questions of religion, women’s rights, and history were too important to be decided by democracy and must be imposed top-down by military power. They assimilated to that lesson all too well.

The irony is that many non-Westerners do understand what the American founding fathers were trying to accomplish in 1787, much better than Americans. I attended the World Schools Debate Championships this July, the premier international high school competition, where I saw the U.S. national team face Pakistan, debating the proposition that all constitutions should be open to revision every ten years. The American team engaged in an ahistorical and almost absurd argumentation about how the very existence of the U.S. Constitution had made it hard to abolish slavery (without mention of how no constitution would have worked out). They also argued the Constitution made it impossible to ban private firearms today, and pointed to the failure to pass the Equal Rights Amendment as a sign that amendments didn’t work.

By contrast, the Pakistanis argued that constitutions existed to prevent the seizure of power. They noted how calling into question a constitution does not empower the powerless, but rather further empowers the powerful. It is not those without power who are held back by a constitution, but rather Army Generals in Pakistan who wish to be president, or presidents who wish to dispense with Parliament or the Courts. The American participants, fully immersed in Critical Race Theory and other leftist academic thought, saw all constitutions, but especially the U.S. Constitution, as bad because they restrained the use of arbitrary power by the state against views and groups they did not like. It was left to the Pakistanis to explain that constitutions exist to restrain the exercise of arbitrary power. To top it all off, the Pakistanis reminded the Americans that stripping people of their private firearms or enforcing an Equal Rights Amendment without majority political support was reactionary, not democratic.

I was left with the distinct impression that these Pakistani high schoolers had a much greater understanding of what state building involved than their American counterparts, and that Afghanistan and Iraq might have fared far better had the Pakistani view predominated. Evidently the judges agreed, as the Pakistanis easily won. Sadly, the Afghan state was far less lucky.

Perhaps the outcomes in Afghanistan and Iraq were inevitable due to the errors of George W. Bush and Barack Obama. But those errors did not occur in isolation. They occurred at a time in the United States where the traditional notion of democracy upon which the United States was founded has been under attack from self-identified socialists in Congress and left-wing activists in academia and the media. Rather than a neutral process setting the terms for debate upon which to legislate values, the liberal elites who wrote Afghanistan and Iraq’s constitutions now believe the sole purpose of democracy is arriving at the “right policies” – in other words, imposing the value system they believe is best through the structure of government itself, and not through debate, legislation, and voting.  

The liberal elites who wrote Afghanistan and Iraq’s failed constitutions may want to pay more attention to what has happened over the last few years at home under the influence of their ideology. As much as some on the far left of Twitter might want to compare Donald Trump supporters to the Taliban, that comparison is absurd. But there are more than a few similarities between the type of regime Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani tried to run in Kabul and the one Gavin Newsom and Andrew Cuomo have overseen in California and New York. Right down to seeing any sort of political challenges as an attack on the state, as “they are the state.” American liberals would do well to remember where their power comes from, lest they suffer the same decline into chaos that now besets the Middle East.


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