The cautious path to a stable state

The violent conflict in Afghanistan has been escalating since 2005, making the process of reconstruction that much harder. To bring stability to the country, the focus must be on strengthening the state and facilitating the rule of law.

Precipitate reforms have never been conducive to success

Critics of this formal concept of the rule of law rightly point out that a state system of this nature could still be used for purposes of oppression. Afghanistan does indeed have some legal norms that are not compatible with Western interpretations of human rights – Afghan family law, for instance, makes it significantly harder for women to obtain a divorce than men. Proponents of a substantive concept of the rule of law would like to see human rights and basic democratic principles prevail. However, caution is advised. This is where well-meaning advisers run the risk of imposing values on Afghan society that are not welcome. Many people in the country perceive this kind of pressure to be arrogant and dishonest.

Consider, for example, the case of the convert Abdul Rahman, who was baptized while in exile and, two years ago, was prosecuted in Afghanistan for re­­nouncing Islam. With the prospect of the death penalty looming, foreign governments and human rights organizations bombarded the Afghan president with demands to intervene and ensure the man’s release. These were the same governments and organizations that, in a different context, had sworn to uphold the national sovereignty of Afghanistan and demanded that the Afghan government finally safeguard the independence of the judicial system – and that to this day show scant regard for the human rights of Afghan detainees in prison camps such as Guantánamo and Bagram. This exercise in double standards was perceived by many Afghans as blatant cynicism.

Western governments are well advised to stick to their own principles and consider the history of Afghanistan. Precipitate reforms have never been conducive to success. The reformist Shah Amanullah, who introduced coeducation and instituted a ban on headscarves, was no more successful in the 1920s than were the communist leaders of the 1970s and 1980s. In each case, their attempts at reform were followed by long periods of violence and a sharp reversal of modernization.

Many things are better achieved by cautious means. The process of promoting human rights should be centered primarily in civil society, for instance by supporting the program of education undertaken by the Afghan Human Rights Commission, so that the pressure for reform is allowed to build among the population. Members of the Human Rights Commission are regularly invited to take part in Max Planck seminars where they themselves can best explain their role and their activities to judges and public prosecutors and foster an understanding of their concerns.

Thus, in answer to the question of how help for Afghanistan should best be implemented, it is not just the obvious, mainly technical aspects that are important, such as better coordination between aid organizations. From the point of view of the Afghans themselves, honesty and credibility are far more signi­ficant. That also includes taking Islam seriously as an inherently peaceful religion and civilization. Those who involve themselves in the Islamic world should not forget that, in the past two hundred years, no Islamic state has ever attacked a Western country. The majority of crimes against humanity that shape our political awareness have been committed by so-called developed countries – a fact that is not forgotten, particularly in countries like Afghanistan.

The Author:
Dr. Tilmann J. Röder has worked at the Max Planck Institute for Comparative Public Law and International Law in Heidelberg since 2006 and is the head of projects in the Middle East and Central Asia. The current regional focus of his work is on Afghanistan and Iraq. Central issues include constitutional law and normative pluralism.

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