Recently, I had the opportunity to return to Afghanistan to present research findings that intended to assist Afghans as they consider how changes to their current electoral system might affect governance. The research question I was tasked to explore was quite intriguing, and one where the literature was essentially silent: How does an electoral system shape governance of the security sector? Using lessons from three countries that have had electoral system changes coupled with particular challenges in promoting democratically-consistent oversight of the security sector – Indonesia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Turkey – my ambition was to discuss with policymakers and members of civil society how system-level institutional change can have second-order consequences.
In Kabul, there were many opportunities to talk informally and formally with a range of concerned professionals, from Western diplomatic staffs and USAID partners, to Afghan academics and members of civil society. One event stands out: A large presentation to members of Afghan civil society who were charged with assessing and overseeing Afghan electoral politics. In what should come as little surprise, the impact of the withdrawal of visiting forces in 2014 framed the discussion. The attendees were not affiliated with the myriad of security agencies and entities that populate Afghanistan. Instead, they represented a segment of Afghan society that was exceptionally well educated and worldly, whose focus was transforming Afghanistan’s political institutions. That said, security dominated the subsequent discussion. From such discussions across the weeks, it became possible to distill SSR-related themes, including:
Models. Afghans, and the Westerners I spoke with over the course of a week, wanted a precise international comparison to base their decisions. This is, of course, wholly reasonable. But frankly, it is difficult in practice to find a country that can mirror the Afghan experience: internal and international conflict for more than 30 years, a deeply fissiparous society, a shattered economy bolstered by mega-infusions from abroad, and whose population has little experience in formal democratic practice. Does a comparative model exist in toto or must one find examples that share a few of Afghanistan’s attributes?
Propinquity. All countries, even the Hermit Kingdom of North Korea, exist within an international environment that sometimes is hostile to national goals. Afghans in particular were concerned with the plans from its neighbors and others from abroad, prompting one participant to compare contemporary Afghanistan to the Great Game of the 19th century. How can a country develop when so many seem opposed to its existence?
Internal Violence. Afghanistan’s internal conflict spawns a multitude of aspects that affect Afghan governance, particularly the security sector: a de facto security state, where all political, social and economic dynamics must consider security; mistrust of official security actors, whose inordinate power is often abused vis-a-vis ordinary citizens; mistrust of the centralized state, when the centripetal nature of the conflict requires a more powerful force. The theme of democratically-consistent SSR amidst endemic violence underpinned so much of our discussions.
A Return to Authoritarianism? Interestingly, the presentation ended with a discussion of whether Afghanistan might be better off under a military regime, or some form of developmental dictatorship. Fortunately, this is a topic that I know a fair amount about. With the Latin American experience in mind, we discussed the siren song of the military dictatorship and its apparent strengths, concluding that the military having an ultimate say in politics usually ends poorly. In the face of violence and mayhem, who can blame Afghans for looking for another model?
If it is possible to make one broad observation, it is that Afghanistan illustrates that security in all its forms, including security sector reform, is clearly a necessary condition for the practice of democracy. Institutional development remains an essential feature in creating minimal security from which accountable governance can flourish.
The report will be available in the coming weeks at Democracy International.
Joseph Derdzinski is a member of the Security Governance Group Expert Roster. He is a senior international development consultant, a visiting professor of political science, and an active member of organizations that promote the care of persons with developmental disabilities. Joseph was a US Air Force officer, retiring after 22 years, with half of his career as a special agent in the Air Force’s Office of Special Investigations and the latter half as an associate professor of political science and a senior faculty member at the United States Air Force Academy.