Afghanistan: December 24, 2003


For the last ten days, the Loya Jirga (national gathering of traditional leaders) has debated and discussed what the new Afghan government will look like. Interim president Hamid Karzai has negotiated a majority coalition that backs his proposal for a presidential form of government (like the US), rather than a parliamentary form (where the leader of the largest coalition of parties in parliament becomes prime minister, as long as that majority supports him.) The parliamentary form was favored by many warlords and Islamic conservative tribal leaders, as it meant they could use their minority support among Afghans to influence the formation of parliamentary coalitions, and the selection of a prime minister. In a presidential system, the president is elected by a national vote, and most Afghans appear ready to vote for a moderate like Karzai.

Trying to establish democracy "the Afghan way" is offending many in the West because of the respect shown there for tribal leaders and warlords. Afghanistan has never observed the "one man, one vote" principle in its entire history. What has persisted for thousands of years is the "strong man who takes care of his followers" system. In other words, tribes and warlords. Tribes are a large extended family, a way to know which strangers you should work with. Warlords are leaders who have a knack for organizing large scale violence and getting things done. The tribes have been the only reliable government Afghans have known for centuries. Any Afghan democracy has to get along with the tribes, not the other way around. Same with the warlords, who have long provided what passed for national defense and economic opportunity. Foreign invaders were confronted by scores of warlords and their followers. Anyone with ambitions to better their lot, hooked up with a warlord, or became one. Plunder, bribes and tribute were all possible if you were a warlord, although mutilation or an early death were more likely. Getting the tribes and warlords to agree on a democratic national government is one thing. Getting everyone to agree to go along with whoever is elected is another. There's less a sense of national unity than there is one of tribal welfare and "what's in it for me (and my tribe.)"


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