Afghanistan’s Strongman Democracy

Flawed and messy as it was, the vote was still good for democracy.

Afghan women wait in line to vote at a polling center for the country’s legislative election in Herat province on Oct. 20. (Hoshang Hashimi/AFP/Getty Images)
Afghan women wait in line to vote at a polling center for the country’s legislative election in Herat province on Oct. 20. (Hoshang Hashimi/AFP/Getty Images)

Over the weekend, more than 3 million Afghans made their way to local polling stations to cast ballots in long-anticipated parliamentary elections. Just two days before, a beloved—and notorious—political leader, Abdul Raziq, the police chief of Kandahar province, had been assassinated while he was meeting with Gen. Austin Miller, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. Taken together, the two events say a great deal about the messy business of war-making and state building in Afghanistan since 2001.

This weekend’s elections were marked by a range of technical and logistical failures that underscored the real institutional weaknesses of the current government. Even the country’s second vice president, Sarwar Danish, had to wait 45 minutes to cast his ballot. Meanwhile, Interior Minister Wais Barmak confirmed close to 200 security incidents nationwide. At least 17 civilians were killed in election-related violence.

Yet reports from across the country revealed a citizenry steadfastly determined to make its voice heard. In the millions, Afghans reaffirmed their attachment to procedural democracy, even in the face of government incompetence, and they defied the bloody extremism of the Taliban, the Islamic State, and those groups’ sponsors and sympathizers. Afghans may be saddled with a weak government, but their collective commitment to rebuilding their nation remains strong.

In that struggle, the citizens of Afghanistan had found an imperfectly heroic leader in Raziq, whose commitment to defending the state was matched by a staunch, persistent opposition to the Taliban. That made him a symbol for southern Afghanistan’s anti-Taliban constituency. It also created a new political center of gravity for people across the country invested in ridding their homeland of violent extremism.

The public outpouring over Raziq’s assassination has been striking. In a country where citizens have lived in a state of anxiety and loss for decades, it is unusual for a single attack to stun the nation into a sustained moment of grief. But, on the eve of elections, the sense of mourning was unmistakable. Raziq, who was 39 years old, was born on the Afghan frontier in the Kandahar province border district of Spin Boldak. The Taliban killed his father and uncle when he was a child; less than a decade later, he returned home to police his stretch of the border with Pakistan on behalf of the new Hamid Karzai government. Raziq’s reputation as a fierce strongman grew, as did his wealth, paving the way for his emergence as one of the most formidable leaders in the old Taliban heartland.

Over the last several years, even as large swaths of southern Afghanistan were battered by Taliban assaults, Kandahar province receded from the headlines, becoming an increasingly secure and prosperous outpost. Raziq is said to have established close relationships with fellow Achakzai tribesmen across the border as part of his effort to combat the insurgent threat. He leveraged his massive earnings (licit and otherwise) into a patronage system, through which he expanded his base beyond immediate kinship networks. District-level government and police positions were engulfed in his growing sphere of influence, and he maintained good relationships with key powerbrokers, including the Karzai family.

Raziq married friendly co-optation with a reputation for mercilessness toward those who crossed him. Indeed, although he had been lauded by the United States for his prowess as a fighter during the war, Raziq also faced sustained accusations of severe human rights violations. His iron-fisted approach and his policy of zero tolerance for the Taliban bred respect on the part of some and terror among others, but few could doubt his commitment to defending and rebuilding his home.

Raziq’s tenure defied the kinds of binaries Western observers so often adopt when discussing war-torn polities: His harsh (extrajudicial) brutality as a warlord kept a key province in the hands of the Kabul government. His tribal credentials gave him important social capital but did not preclude him from aligning with other tribes and ethnic groups. He valued an intimate working relationship with the United States and built connections with powerbrokers in the rest of Afghanistan, but he never relinquished the lifestyle of a local fighter.

Some of Raziq’s most powerful backers included the northern strongman Atta Mohammad Noor, who was Afghanistan’s most influential governor, and Abdullah Abdullah, President Ashraf Ghani’s second in command and a key rival. Raziq also lent his stable of well-trained commanders to the national security sector, sending one of them to serve as police chief in the besieged province of Ghazni. All of this mirrored a resurgent pan-Afghan politics that transcended the ethnic, regional, and sectarian boundaries embraced by more parochial elites.

At the same time, Raziq’s profile as an unpolished strongman set him at odds with Ghani’s reformist agenda. The general operated in the gray spaces of state building and counterinsurgency, an affront to Ghani’s belief in the absolute superiority of technocratic rule over strongman politics. But, as the challenges of this weekend’s election reveal, good governance remains no easy feat in a place destroyed by decades of war, displacement, and foreign interference.

And that is perhaps why cricketers, ministers, women’s rights activists, journalists, students, Hazaras, Tajiks, and Pashtuns from across the country all joined to acknowledge Raziq’s death even as elections in Kandahar were postponed. His fight, complicated though it was, offered them some space and security—physical, political, and psychological—to attend university, open shops, run for office, play football, and raise children. The photos, poems, and songs they shared on social media were a tribute to a man whose ethics and experiences differed greatly from their own but whose commitment to protect and rebuild the nation felt very familiar.

Raziq’s own journey, deeply fraught as it was, reflected the fragility of democratic politics in the midst of war. His short life and career showed the limits of the current moment but also the possibilities it holds for a new generation of Afghans, who, like him, grew up during civil war and Taliban rule. Millions of them risked their lives lining up to cast ballots just days after Raziq lost his. In his final public remarks before his death, Raziq had urged his fellow citizens to go out and vote. In heeding his call, they demonstrated their willingness to invest in a better future, however difficult getting there may prove to be.

Dipali Mukhopadhyay is an associate professor of international and public affairs at Columbia University and author of Warlords, Strongman Governors, and the State in Afghanistan.

Omar Sharifi was the director of the American Institute of Afghanistan Studies in Kabul from 2008 to 2013 and is currently a doctoral candidate in cultural anthropology at Boston University.