Afghanistan and The Fallacy of Benevolent Dictatorship

23 Jul 2023
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Afghanistan and The Fallacy of Benevolent Dictatorship

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Tobias Ellwood, a conservative member of the British Parliament and the Chair of the House of Commons Defence Select Committee, on a recent trip to Afghanistan, reported – on July 17, 2023 – that “All that has happened here since 9/11 this is a very different country indeed, it feels different now that the Taliban have returned to power… security has vastly improved, corruption is down, and the opium trade has all but disappeared, Pylons distribute electricity to the cities, solar panels are now everywhere, power irrigation pumps allowing more crops to grow… you quickly appreciate this war-weary nation is for the moment accepting a more authoritarian leadership in exchange for stability.”[1] On the same day, Mr. Ellwood again emphasized his stance in an article published in Telegraph titled Is it time we did business with the Taliban?[2]” Critics fact-checked Mr. Ellwood’s statement. They accused him of airing misinformation, whitewashing the Taliban, and ignoring the tragedy going on in the country, particularly concerning women’s rights to work and education, and atrocities against non-Pashtun ethnic groups, such as Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras. Beyond the fact-based critics, the question is, “Where does the theoretical argument of such a stance lie?” the answer is the “Benevolent Dictatorship.” This piece is a counter-argument to the compatibility of the benevolent dictatorship to Afghanistan.

In political science, there is a camp of scholarship regarding benevolent dictatorship. The basic notion of benevolent dictatorship is that some autocratic regimes and dictators succeeded in fundamentally transforming their economies, of course, in exchange for the political freedoms of the citizens. A benevolent dictator exercises absolute power and seizes people’s political freedoms while bringing economic growth to the country. In modern history, the British Empire used benevolent dictator’s rhetoric as a justification to support colonial rule, claiming that they would bring development to those being colonized by them. South Korea under Park Chung-Hee, China under Deng Xiaoping, Türkiye under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Chile Under Augusto Pinochet, and Singapore under Lee Kuan Yew are considered some of the eminent cases of benevolent dictatorship.

Mr. Ellwood again emphasized his stance in an article published in Telegraph titled Is it time we did business with the Taliban? | Telegraph

Theoretically, the notion of benevolent dictatorship has been largely questioned. William Easterly (2011) argues that no theory and evidence support the concept of “benevolent autocrats.” Accordingly, “Most theories of autocracy portray it as a system of strategic interactions rather than simply the unconstrained preferences of the leader. The principal evidence for benevolent vs. malevolent autocrats is the higher variance of growth under autocracy than under democracy. However, the variance of growth within the terms of leaders swamps the variance across leaders, and more so under autocracy than under democracy. The empirical variance of growth literature has identified many correlates of autocracy as equally plausible determinants of high growth variance. The growth effects of exogenous leader transitions under autocracy are too small and temporary to provide much support for benevolent autocrats.” Furthermore, Easterly shows that there are a lot of “cognitive biases that would tend to bias perceptions in favor of benevolent autocrats.[3]” Therefore, establishing a benevolent dictatorship is political rhetoric that has no social roots. A dictator not giving fundamental freedoms to the citizens is never benevolent. If he does, then he is no more dictator. As freedom is the highest political and moral value.

Since it emerged as a modern state, Afghanistan has experienced dictatorship quite a few times. The emergence of the modern state in 1880 happened under the dictatorship of the so-called Iron King, Abdul Rahman Khan, who ruled the country for 21 years. Mohammad Nadir Khan for four years (1929-1933), Mohammad Zahir Shah for thirty years (1933-1963), the first round of Taliban rule for five years (1996-2001), and the second round of the Taliban rule from Aug 2021 to present are the prominent periods of autocratic leadership in the country. None of these periods led to sufficient development and economic growth. In contrast, most of these governments depended on foreign rents and are known as fragile states.

Ethnically, Afghanistan is the land of minorities and hence, so diverse[4]. No single ethnic group could consolidate power in the long run exclusively. Therefore, the problem of social justice, peace, and conflict is highly associated with the Afghan political elites’ adaptation of a mono-cultural strong central government nationalist narrative. As Brian D. Taylor and Roxana Botea (2008) correctly argued that the main reason for the failure of the emergence of a strong state in Afghanistan is the “absent of a core ethnic group” that had served as the basis for a relatively long-standing political community in association with nationalism and development[5]. However, the Afghans (Pashtuns) indefatigably tried to establish a strong central dictatorship or pseudo-dictatorship, but, it has failed persistently. Failed, collapsed, weak, and fragile have been the longstanding appellatives of Afghan (Pashtun) states in its modern history. The alternative is to build a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, and decentralized political order.

Just like the first round of their political rule, the Taliban built an authoritarian ethnoreligious regime after seizing power in Aug 2021. The Taliban regime is religiously extreme, ethnically exclusive to Pashtuns, politically centralized, and gender apartheid to women. The historical, ethnic, and cultural realities and evidence of the country tell a very opposite narrative. Consequentially, considering the given arguments, neither dictatorship nor benevolent dictatorship is compatible with Afghanistan. Benevolent dictatorship to the citizen of Afghanistan is a trap of absolute control, rather than an approach to economic development. It is a limiting ideology, rather than a promise to independency. It is a fairy tale, hypnotizing people with false and fraudulent assurance. No freedom is negotiable and no dictator is benevolent.




[3] Easterly, William. 2011. Benevolent Autocrats. New York University Development Research Institute. DRI Working Paper No. 75.

[4] i.e. see Thomas Barfield’s Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History (2010)

[5] Botea, Roxana and Taylor Brian D. 2008. Tilly Tally: War-Making and State-Making in the Contemporary Third World. International Studies Review, Vol. 10, No. 1, pp. 27-56.

Shahir Sirat

Political Science Writer and researcher. His most recent research, Typology of Active Political Trends at Universities (2023) was published by Afghanistan Institute of Strategic Studies (AISS). His most recent co-authored book, The Street: Protest and Power (2021) was published in Kabul by Vajeh publications.

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