Afghanistan: the limits of "exporting democracy"

Following the Taliban's recapture of Afghanistan, European commentators are fundamentally questioning Western involvement in Islamic countries. Is "exporting democracy " a laudable endeavour? A hopeless mission? Or even an imperialist presumption?

Open/close all quotes
Český rozhlas (CZ) /

The problem with "Western values"

It is not just Afghanistan but also some countries in Eastern and Central Europe that express opposition to so-called Western values, Český rozhlas notes:

“For the West it is hard to understand that it seems as if for Hungarians, Poles, Czechs, Romanians or Bulgarians other things are more important to them than freedom, an open society and the rule of law. ... These two completely different examples raise a similar question - whether Western states should impose their values and democratic standards on Eastern societies when this is often interpreted in these countries as a manifestation of the West's arrogance and superiority. The West could be more sensitive in its attempts to export democracy.”

Der Tagesspiegel (DE) /

What presumption

Afghanistan policy - and not only that - is shaped by Europe's colonial legacy, Der Tagesspiegel criticises:

“The colonialists were guided by the idea of spreading their 'values' throughout the world. Africa, for example, was seen as a 'continent without history' whose people were allegedly just waiting to be 'civilised' by Europe. ... In Afghanistan, the German government and its allies wanted to use military and development aid to transform a country in which 50 languages are spoken and which looks back on thousands of years of cultural history. In Mali, in the name of 'stability', they want to shut down the countless migration routes through the Sahara which have existed at least since the zenith of the West African kingdoms 500 years ago. What presumption!”

Corriere della Sera (IT) /

Don't just focus on the mistakes

Those who now badmouth everything that has been done in Afghanistan are playing into the hands of all those who reject the West per se, political scientist Angelo Panebianco warns in Corriere della Sera:

“The desperate men clinging to the planes in the air, the women terrified by the return of the barbarians, and all those who are now trying to escape before hell devours them are witnesses to the fact that despite twenty years of war and many mistakes, the West has succeeded in helping the Afghans to create at least the beginnings of an acceptable society. ... Why is it important to remember not only the mistakes but also the good that has been done? ... Because those who have always detested Western society are getting ready to hold a 'great trial' against its principles and achievements.”

Yeni Şafak (TR) /

Islamic countries need to act

The governments of the Islamic countries now bear a great responsibility, stresses the Islamic-conservative daily Yeni Şafak:

“They should keep appealing to the Taliban and ensure that the Afghan people live in a largely comfortable, largely free country. They should propose to the Taliban a leadership model that does not consist of harshness, brutality and senseless restrictions but restores the dignity and honour of the shattered Afghan people, gives hope for the future and is able to tolerate differences. Perhaps that can't work. Perhaps the Taliban will not listen to these proposals. But the historical responsibility of Islamic countries is to call the Taliban to 'reason'.”

Irish Examiner (IE) /

A journey they must travel themselves

The Irish Examiner believes that ultimately, only the Afghans themselves can rid themselves of the Taliban:

“More and more commentators concentrate on the potential horrors of Taliban rule and call again for some form of 'western oversight'. One can only hope, however, in Afghan affairs that we, at last, listen to what is a very clear lesson from history - the problems of Afghanistan will only be solved by the people of Afghanistan. We can only hope that journey - on behalf of the innocent - is not a bloody and painful one but it is, nevertheless, a journey they must travel themselves. ...The West can no longer, however, directly interfere from within with the Afghan people's right to self-determination.”

Delfi (LT) /

A civilisation cannot simply be transformed

For Delfi, the involvement of Western countries in Afghanistan was a

“pure act of faith. An attempt to build a church of human rights in a territory conquered by people of other faiths. A crusade with a rainbow flag. ... Of course we feel sorry for those Afghans who love freedom and are suffering under the rule of religious fanatics. But the West cannot turn the traditionalist East into the West - not with force, not with money, not with education. It simply can't. To state it very clearly for us in the West: a civilisation is not a gender, it cannot simply be changed.”

Corriere della Sera (IT) /

Who should decide on democracy

Whether a nation is ready to embrace democracy should not be decided by the 'exporters of democracy', warns historian Ernesto Galli della Logia in Corriere della Sera:

“Today, many are quick to claim that democracy - which goes back to a historical development specific to the culture of the West - is only suitable for populations that share that culture. ... But who decides the validity of this law of cultural incompatibility? ... It is evident that this should probably be determined by those affected, that is, by the very people who belong to the culture 'other' than our own. ... It is a pity that the argument of cultural incompatibility with democracy is regularly invoked not by those who are directly affected, but only and always by those who have come to govern them.”

Ekho Moskvy (RU) /

Pressure to modernise triggered fierce resistance

Ekho Moskvy believes that Europe misjudged the modernisation potential of Islamic societies:

“One often sees images nowadays of female students in 1960s Kabul or Tehran sitting on café terraces and wearing miniskirts. But we should reconsider the history of the last third of the 20th century. When not only the elites of these countries but also a large section of the population, were confronted with Western modernity, an attempt to reinforce their own identity by returning to fundamental values began. ... With its foreign policy, it was the West (in the broadest sense, including Israel and the USSR) that first turned political Islam into a movement that protected itself from external forces. And the stronger the pressure from outside to modernise became, the more fiercely it was resisted.”

Hürriyet (TR) /

The country wasn't secular to start with

Ahmet Hakan, a well-known Hürriyet columnist and presenter of political TV programmes on CNNTürk, criticises the misrepresentation of Afghanistan in the Turkish and international media:

“Afghanistan was not, until a week ago, a country where people danced in the streets for freedom. It was an Islamic republic where secularism did not exist. Even if they were not interpreted very strictly, religious rules applied. What I'm trying to say is: don't believe ignorant insinuations and comments like 'the Taliban proclaimed Sharia', 'the Taliban came, and secularism disappeared'. The truth is that Afghanistan was an Islamic republic but not as strict an Islamic emirate as the Taliban would like it to be.”