TW: military occupation and political coercion of Afghanistan, Kurdish-Turkish conflicts and violence
Turkey’s recent party elections (which allowed Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to remain the head of the ruling party) and upcoming Presidential Elections (in which Erdoğan seems likely to run) are an interesting and unexamined contrast to the US-led “nation-building” and democratization of Afghanistan. Both nations experienced massive political upheaval throughout the end of the twentieth century. Turkey survived three military coups, and Afghanistan saw its local monarchy succumb to Soviet occupation which in turn degraded into civil war and effective theocratic rule. In the first few years of the twentieth century, however, the US invaded and began occupying Afghanistan while pushing the development of a democratic and constitutional government. In Turkey, Erdoğan, then the mayor of İstanbul, formed the now-governing AK Party and led a comparatively peaceful and mostly electoral democratic transition. In his potential bid for the presidency, a major issue will be the lack of a replacement to the current constitution which was designed under military dictatorship.
While there are clear similarities in the overall political arch of the two countries for the past few decades, there’s a number of clear differences: most obviously, Turkey’s comparative wealth to Afghanistan’s undeniable poverty and Turkey’s endogenous democratization to Afghanistan’s part in Bush’s plan for the Islamic world. Less commonly addressed, I think, is the catch-22 that both nation’s have struggled with in different ways – for Afghanistan to create a constitution with minimal change in the broader culture and for Turkey to repair major problems in the larger political context without substantively challenging the flaws in the existing constitution.
The modern constitution of Afghanistan was adopted by consensus at a large delegate meeting of representatives of various ethnic groups and tribes and political factions, essentially organized by the US government. The political process was primarily shaped by foreign political pressure and domestic elites. Unsurprisingly, it failed to substantively address the underlying causes of terrorism and other violence against the succeeding government. As Sakena Yacoobi, Afghani literacy and women’s rights activist, explained in 2009-
“Many people tell me that Afghanistan should have democracy, but how can a society, a nation, have democracy when the people of that nation don’t know how to read and write? How can you implement a democracy if people don’t know their rights? We have a constitution, but it needs to be implemented. We cannot just talk about democracy. We have to prepare people for democracy.”
The constitution developed in 2003 remained little more than a piece of paper to millions of poor and effectively disenfranchised civilians in Afghanistan. Yacoobi also identifies the major issues that then newly-elected President Obama would need to focus on to actually substantively democratize Afghanistan:
“Peacekeeping is one way to negotiate with [civilians sympathetic to militants], but right now, for maintaining security, I think that troops are needed — but our own troops, not American. If the United States really wants to help stabilize our country, I would tell President Obama that the United States should direct its resources to planning, developing the infrastructure, and providing jobs for the people of Afghanistan and region. If people have enough to eat, a job, money to support their family, then they would not resort to suicide bombing, blowing themselves up and innocent people. Countries need some sort of national security — but most foreign troops are not primarily focused on protecting women and children. Their focus is on beating the enemy, which is very different, and ordinary citizens become collateral damage in the process.”
With stability in Afghanistan increasingly seeming unglued in spite of significant US support and cooperation with local security forces, it seems as though her warning for the course of action the US would need to take should have been heard years earlier under Bush. By the time Obama began implementing such solutions, the country had already politically disintegrated, not from lack of a constitution but from the lack of a political context that could give such political items actual power.
(Left, armed guards outside of the delegate meeting on Afghanistan’s constitution, 2004 – from here. Right, Turkish student protesters holding up a sign saying, “The Youth Federation wants and will get free education” who were charged with membership in a terrorist organization and given months or years in prison – from here.)
The current political problems in Turkey, however, are a sign that democratization that’s locally-arising and focuses on larger political issues and values isn’t necessarily enough to create lasting and effective change, especially when the constitution and legal system remain more or less unchanged. It’s hard to deny the ways the AK Party and Prime Minister Erdoğan specifically have changed political discussion in Turkey – as an even-handed analysis has to admit he’s shut-out a military which historically served as a check against democratic demands. He’s become a human incarnation of the idea that moderate Islam, representative government, and explosive economic development can be effectively combined, changing political discussions throughout the Islamic world.
But while the right to vote is not so precariously dependent on being tolerated by the military, the government has retained confusing and sometimes arbitrary limitations on freedom of speech, some of which were even used against the reformer party that now controls the government. Likewise, freedom from military violence and coercion seems exclusively a benefit that’s been gained by ethnic Turks, as violence between Kurdish separatists and the Turkish military has now reached a fever pitch. Erdoğan has helped significantly change the political culture of Turkey – but only for some and in certain circumstances, and increasingly to personal rather than national benefit. The constitution has been left unchanged since a coup decades ago and consequently gives these failures legal cover. The new system proposed by his government contains a poison pill of sorts, with it giving the presidency that Erdoğan is vying for more executive power. The larger political context of Turkey could only change so much, and the inattention to the problems with its constitution are exacerbating that problem.
The inevitable problem seems to be that constitutional and legal reform is necessary to effective democratization, but that contemporaneous changes to the broader political context and discourse in the country have to be significant. Simultaneously, the development of a substantively democratic culture requires to some degree legal and constitutional protections. We’re dealing with the chicken and the egg here – to focus very hard on only one as in Afghanistan and Turkey destroys the feedback cycle between the two, which might be the only way towards authentically democratic governance.