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On both sides of the Atlantic, the multilateral nation-building efforts in Afghanistan have dominated foreign policy debates for more than a decade now. The Afghan endeavor has raised questions about the universal possibilities of democratic institutions and the relationship between democratization and culture. As the war in Afghanistan has progressed and the costs of international assistance have increased, pessimism about nation-building has grown.
The Common Sense Society in Budapest recently hosted a discussion with four visiting civil society leaders from Afghanistan, who shared their first-hand experiences with nation-building efforts in their country. Dr. Mirwais Rahimzai, Freshta Kharimi, Sadiq Mohibi, and Razia Arooj acknowledged that a sense of fatigue may be a natural effect of long-term international commitments; but judging by the whole of Western history, the development of lasting democratic institutions takes decades or even centuries to complete. They stated that Afghanistan has a long way to go towards economic self-sustainability and will need a steady flow of international aid in order to build its economy.
The speakers also highlighted that, as a multi-ethnic country, one of Afghanistan’s primary struggles is to forge a common national identity, the classic objective of nation-building according to Professor Péter Marton, the moderator of the discussion. In addition, state-building is also vital to ensure that the Afghanistan has a properly functioning bureaucracy, effective police force, and trustworthy institutions are put in place. The presence of former warlords in the government and National Assembly along with rampant corruption and cronyism throughout the political system does great harm to the public legitimacy of the democratic process. The political class is often perceived as self-serving and elitist, without long-term plans for the future. Thus the system appears to facilitate a culture of corruption, and without an obvious mechanism for maintaining accountability and justice.
Grassroots initiatives help to empower Afghan citizens to improve the standard of living in their communities and address the issues that are the most important to them, e.g. fighting maternal death and discrimination in the judicial and the political spheres against women and people with disabilities. These significant enterprises build the democratic character of a people and have the potential to generate positive change in the higher echelons of Afghan politics. A strong civil society can also act as a safeguard against the tyranny of the majority, especially in such a diverse society where people of certain ethnicities are privileged over others.
All of the four civil society leaders expressed optimism about the future durability of their efforts. They believe that while the Taliban remain a serious threat, the Afghan people are supportive of the changes made in the last decade and reject the terrorist group’s extreme ideology. If the international and national forces can protect the population and not let the citizens be intimidated by extremist elements, Afghanistan has a good chance to progress both democratically and economically.
The Afghan speakers told the audience of Hungarians and Americans that the international community, however, should remain patient and perseverant in its nation- and state-building efforts. As a conflict-ridden state, Afghanistan will need the help of allies for a long time to come. Leaving the country on the assumption that democracy cannot grow there, will in fact ensure that it never does.
–Zsófia Göde is a Leadership Fellow and Program Associate at the Common Sense Society in Budapest.