Does Afghanistan need a “Tajik Solution?”

Foreign Affairs ran a recent essay describing Tajikistan as a model for ending the war in Afghanistan. George Gavrilis recommends the pragmatic strategy that ended the Tajik civil war be duplicated for Afghanistan. On its face, it’s a compelling argument – two neighboring countries, both Muslim, mountainous, plagued by drug trafficking and warlords. Both faced civil war. Tajikistan’s civil war ended twelve years ago, while Afghanistan fights on. Why not use Tajikistan as a model?

The Tajik solution, as Gavrilis calls it, is defined by ruthless deal-making and a disregard for hopes of democracy. He describes it as “an intelligently conceived and successfully implemented intervention by a small UN mission and a core of unlikely bedfellows that included Iran and Russia. Rather than forcing free and fair elections, throwing out warlords, and flooding the country with foreign peacekeepers, the intervening parties opted for a more limited and realistic set of goals. They brokered deals across political factions, tolerated warlords where necessary, and kept the number of outside peacekeeping troops to a minimum.” And I agree with Gavrilis here – that is an entirely fair description of the package that ended the war. It wasn’t about enforcing democratic ideology, just about finding some kind of peace and stability.

Unfortunately, the similarities between the two countries are superficial. Tajikistan and Afghanistan weren’t starting from the same place. The two civil wars had very different contexts. Tajikistan spent almost seventy years as part of the USSR. Citizens of Soviet Tajikistan were accustomed to free universal primary education, high employment rates, government-provided health care, and functional infrastructure. In 1992, when the war began, Tajikistan had a 96% literacy rate, and a life expectancy of 70 years.

Most importantly, Tajiks remembered being part of the Soviet Union. (They still do. I live in Tajikistan; people still reminisce fondly about the USSR today.) The Tajiks fighting the civil war remembered what long-term peace was like. They remembered what real government was like, even if it was autocratic. And they were willing, in the end, to trade their political and military ambitions for a government that looked a lot like the USSR. They knew exactly what they were getting in the deal that ended hostilities.

Compare this to the combatants in the Afghan civil war. How many of them are old enough to remember the Kingdom of Afghanistan, when the last king lost power in 1973? Or the short-lived puppet Republic of Afghanistan?  The last government most can remember is the Taliban, hardly a model you’d lay down your arms to support.

Even when it was at peace, Afghanistan’s government struggled to support fundamental governmental functions. The Kingdom of Afghanistan introduced paper money for the first time in the 30s. The United States paid to build Afghanistan’s first major highway in the 1960s. There is very little Afghan cultural memory of what it’s like to live under a stable government that actually does what government is meant to do.

I suspect it is far more difficult to end a war with an aim-low bargain when so few people have firsthand experience of the benefits of basic governance. Afghan public opinion polls support that argument – in an Asia Foundation poll this year, 78% of Afghans said that democracy was the best form of government. Convincing these people to accept something less as their due will be an ugly process.  

None of that necessarily means that the pragmatic, power-politics approach that ended the Tajik civil war wouldn’t work in Afghanistan. I don’t know, and I’m not an Afghanistan expert. Democracy may be an impossible goal; aiming for something smaller might bring peace. But the success of modest goals in Tajikistan is no guarantee of success for Afghanistan. The Tajiks were willing to end their war to get more of the same. The people of Afghanistan just don’t have that model to work from.