James Madison and the Mujahedeen

Published December 2001

IN Afghanistan, all politics are tribal. National governments, like the recently announced interim government, are examples of the triumph of hope over experience. Of course, no American official wants to suggest that the new government should be shaped in our own image at the risk of appearing culturally chauvinistic or insensitive. While understandable, this reluctance is tragic because James Madison has much to offer the Mujahedeen including a system that is designed to handle the very thing that is tearing their country apart.

Despite the cultural and religious differences, the United States and Afghanistan have one extremely important common factor: factions. When Madison helped design our system, he knew that the United States constituted the most pluralistic and factional nation on earth. Composed of immigrants of different races, faiths, and traditions, the United States appeared as ungovernable as the frontier itself. Likewise, while often appearing homogenous and uniform to a Western eye, the Afghans are really a hodgepodge of small tribal and religious factions. These factions are the cause of the years of instability and feudal tendencies in the country.

Madison understood factions. In his study of why governments fail, Madison found factions to be the chief culprit. Until that time (and in many later systems), factions in a country were largely ignored in formal governmental systems. Most constitutions are written at the worst possible moment. In the immediate aftermath of a war or revolution, a country often experiences its greatest sense of unity and mutual affection. It is a Bud Light “I love you, Man” moment. This was evident in Bonn when delegates embraced one another in genuine joy at the formation of a 30-member ruling Afghan council. With time, however, factions develop and most systems remain vulnerable to the instability and violence that factions bring in the “morning after” such celebrations.

Madison built a constitutional system without romance based on a frank understanding of the inclinations of free people. He rejected the unguarded optimism of human nature and fealty as the guarantees of good government. “If men were angels,” Madison noted, no government would be necessary.” Madison built a system that could be governed by devils and still function. Rather than having factions fester beneath the surface and explode into the streets, the Madisonian system encourages their expression. Because of this unique system, the United States has weathered crises that would have shattered most other countries ranging from the depression to the Civil Rights struggle to presidential scandals.

The Majuhedeen need the system Madison created for precisely the conditions in places like Afghanistan. The Madisonian system was designed for bad weather, not good weather the all-terrain option for constitutional systems. Yet, despite our own success in the area of governance, we often display the modesty or uncertainty of the nouveau riche as if faintly embarrassed by our own success. It is considered bad form, if not downright gauche, to suggest that a country as distant and ancient as Afghanistan could benefit from our own system of governance. Of course, we are more than eager to send every form of soft drink or computer game to other countries, but, when it comes to our political system, we seem to view the Constitution as a product that simply does not travel well.

There are no cultural prerequisites to our constitutional system and there is no reason why an Islamic nation cannot flourish under the same principles of governance. Likewise, the problems facing the Afghans are not unique to their nation. Unfortunately, the Afghans appear poised to replicate the mistakes of earlier indigenous systems. Modern Afghans have considerable experience in mountain fighting but decidedly less experience in stable modern governments. It is not the presence of factions that has proven their undoing but their traditional forms of government, which appear ill-suited for a national as opposed to local governance.

None of this means that the Afghans should copy our Constitution jot for jot. Afghanistan is a nation with deeply held traditions that must be accommodated in any model system. However, some of these traditions may return the country to a cycle of factional warfare. It was a cycle described by James Madison over two hundred years ago in discussing another emerging nation torn by division and scarred by war. He knew that the quiet aftermath of a victorious war would be short-lived as factions grew in number and intensity. Without a fundamental change in the model of government in Afghanistan, we may be enjoying the false and transient calm in a hurricane’s eye.

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