As the world watches today's presidential election in
Afghanistan, Americans would do well to ponder the lessons of
The similarities are striking. The Republic of South Vietnam also
held elections during the US intervention there, despite an ongoing
counterinsurgency. Before American troops got involved, both
countries had won upset victories over European powers after a
decade of fighting, only to slide into another decade of largely
north-south civil war.
As historian Eric Bergerud has noted, the United States lost in
Vietnam ultimately not because of its deeply flawed approach to
counterinsurgency, as damaging as that was, but because South
Vietnam never established a government seen as legitimate by a
majority of its people. Experts agree that a government that 85 to
90 percent of the population perceives as legitimate is the sine qua
non of counterinsurgency success. South Vietnam never came close to
achieving such legitimacy, and neither, unfortunately, has post-
2001 Afghanistan. In terms of incompetence and endemic corruption,
Kabul is Saigon deja vu.
That's why we shouldn't read too much into today's election. Even
if it were to yield a high voter turnout, have relatively few
irregularities, and produce a strong majority for the winner, it
won't give the new government legitimacy.
The father of modern sociology, Max Weber, pointed out that
governments draw their legitimacy from three basic sources:
traditional, religious, and legal. The first two are self-
explanatory; by "legal," Weber meant Western-style democracies based
on popular representation and the rule of law. And in this sense,
political failure in Afghanistan was baked into the cake in the 2001
In its rush to stand up an overnight democratic success story,
the Bush administration overlooked Afghan history. Indeed, it was
willfully ahistorical. That's tragic, because Afghan history
demonstrates conclusively and beyond dispute that legitimacy of
governance there is derived exclusively from Weber's first two
sources: traditional (in the form of the monarchy and tribal
patriarchies) and religious. Either there has been a king, or
religious leadership, or a leader validated by the caliphate (or
afterwards by indigenous religious polities).
Often in Afghan history, legitimacy thus derived has been
reinforced by other means, usually coercive and often brutal. For
example, the rule of Amir Abdur Rahman, "The Iron Amir," (1880-
1901) and that of the Taliban (1996-2001) were predicated on
accepted sources of legitimacy of governance (dynastic and
religious, respectively), but reinforced by totalitarian methods.
These two examples make the point that legitimacy should not be
conflated with popularity: having the authority to rule is quite
distinct from being a popular ruler. American presidents, for
example, are always legitimate leaders but not always popular ones.
This historical reality poses a major problem for the US.
Democracy is not a coat of paint. A feudal society in which women
are still largely treated as property and literacy hovers below 10
percent in rural areas does not magically shortcut 400 years of
political development and morph into a democracy in a decade. …