Afghanistan should not spell the end of supporting democracy – POLITICO Europe
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The EU must reexamine how it intervenes in struggling nations, while continuing to engage with democratic values.
Thijs Berman is executive director of the Netherlands Institute for Multiparty Democracy. He is a former MEP (2004-2014) and was head of the European Union’s Election Observation Mission to Afghanistan in 2009 and 2014. He chaired the delegation for Afghanistan at the European Parliament.
The months following Afghanistan’s fall to the Taliban have been rife with soul searching and recrimination, as politicians, analysts and the media argue over what went wrong and who to blame. Listening to some of the voices coming out of Europe, however, I am dismayed to hear a despondency among many, who repeat the patronizing adage that some countries are simply not “ready” for democracy and seem quick to conclude that the failures in Afghanistan demonstrate the limits of support for democracy.
There can be no doubt that the debacle exposed many failings of the international community, forcing us to reexamine how we intervene in struggling nations. However, by no means does the outcome in Afghanistan mean that the European Union or European governments should scale down their ambitions when it comes to supporting fragile nations and democracy.
I do understand some of the frustrations firsthand. I was fortunate enough to work side by side with Afghan colleagues as head of the EU Election Observation Mission to Afghanistan in 2009 and 2014. During that time, I witnessed dreams of a stable democratic society being betrayed by a corrupt government and the powers that supported it, as the outcome of a contested presidential election was eventually accepted by the international community, despite fraud on an industrial scale.
However, to claim that this, the outcome of our own failures, proves that democracy cannot thrive in some countries is just another betrayal of all those shattered dreams. It is particularly disingenuous given that the intervention in Afghanistan was never primarily about building democracy — it was a military mission aimed at security and reconstruction.
From that military mission, a mishmash of other disparate goals sprang forth, but never with any coherence or long-term commitment to building democracy. The support given to democratic institutions in Afghanistan was always half-hearted and constantly undermined by the acceptance of widespread corruption. The Afghan people clearly saw this incoherence, and in the end, many turned to the Taliban.
Moving forward, we need to clearly define the goals of any intervention and be transparent about them. It is essential that we forge clarity and consistency when doing so.
EU election observation missions in fragile states often focus on bringing security and stability to the electoral process — and these are necessary initial goals. But they must not be confused with building democracy, and there must be a plan in place for once the votes are counted.
Understanding the local context is also essential, and that means working with people from all levels of society, not just existing elites. We cannot simply impose democracy from the outside, but we can help it thrive by ensuring the process remains in the hands of those most affected, and support the development of skills and knowledge over the long term.
This is what we owe to the tens of thousands of Afghans who have fled the country, and to all those unable to leave and living in fear. We owe it to the millions of Afghans who turned out to vote in elections we promised would be free and fair. We owe it to those who risked their lives fighting to build a democratic future in which human rights would be respected by a credible, accountable government.
But this is not just about Afghanistan. We see democratic backsliding in so many countries — even within the EU’s own borders. So moving forward with concrete policies and time frames for shoring up democracy is essential. The EU must push for this outcome at U.S. President Joe Biden’s upcoming Global Summit for Democracy in December, where the EU and European governments should play a central role.
From lowering migration and the threat of extremism to tackling social inequality, there are still many incentives for increasing engagement with democratic values, as this is the most sustainable way to build peace and stability in struggling countries. But solemn declarations only mean as much as the steps that follow them.
What we need now is concrete and tangible commitments that are measurable. That is when we will finally be able to say that we truly support democracy.
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