Democracy's hard—and not just in Afghanistan

A reflection on the cost of arrogance and the global challenge to advance democracy in the world

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On August 18, a Taliban fighter walks past a beauty salon with images of women defaced with spray paint. (Photo by Wakil Kohsar/AFP via Getty Images)

I believe in democracy, inclusion and equality. I support the advancement of inclusive democracy and self-governance throughout the world, even as democracy has come under increasing attack with the rise of autocracy, dictatorship and other repressive regimes that oppose basic human rights. But the failed 20-year effort to weld a recalcitrant Afghanistan into a shape that mirrors Western-style democracy should give pause to anyone who still believes this is America’s responsibility.

Of course, anyone who’s paid attention over the last four years in the US—and particularly the weeks before January 6 and the months since—has plenty of reasons to question whether America should be telling anyone to model their behavior on our example. In fact, in a 2021 global survey of 53 countries, while economic inequality is seen as the most serious threat to democracy worldwide, US influence was in the top five threats (following limits to free speech, unfair or fraudulent elections and big tech’s power). The US influence was even seen as a graver threat to democracy than the influence of Russia or China (a result heavily influenced by the views of Europeans).

As for the top threat? “The perception of economic inequality as a threat to democracy is very strongly correlated with the sense that government is acting in the interest of a minority of people,” notes the Democracy Perception Index report.

And that’s not just the view of respondents in other parts of the world: A rising number of Americans surveyed also said that the government “mainly acts in the interests of a small group of people”—up from 52 percent in 2020 to 59 percent in 2021. (Exhibit A of late: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis—bent on rejecting mask mandates to save lives—hawking monoclonal antibody treatment for COVID sold by Regeneron, a pharmaceutical company led by a top donor, Ken Griffin. Griffin’s given $10.75 million to a political action committee that backs DeSantis.)


This month the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) released its latest report outlining “seven key lessons” from the 20-year campaign. Since 2008, SIGAR has produced 427 audits, 191 special project reports, 52 quarterly reports and 10 “lessons learned” reports. Its criminal investigations have led to 160 convictions. This new report, based on over 760 interviews and thousands of government documents, does not mince words:

“While there have been several areas of improvement—most notably in the areas of health care, maternal health, and education—progress has been elusive and the prospects for sustaining the progress that was made are dubious. The U.S. government has been often overwhelmed by the magnitude of rebuilding a country that, at the time of the U.S. invasion, had already seen two decades of Soviet occupation, civil war, and Taliban brutality.”

The rapid collapse of the Afghan government and the Afghan security forces underscores just how dubious the prospects were for sustaining progress. It should be a sober warning of why lingering foreign incursions are ripe for corruption, delusion and, as the report notes, “too many failures.” Chief among those failures, bluntly notes one US military officer: “We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan. We didn’t know what we were doing.”

Here are the headlines of those seven lessons, played out over two decades, costing over a trillion dollars, enriching defense contractors and other private contractors, while combat soldiers sacrificed life and limb.

1. The US government continuously struggled to develop and implement a coherent strategy for what it hoped to achieve.

2. The US government consistently underestimated the amount of time required to rebuild Afghanistan, and created unrealistic timelines and expectations that prioritized spending quickly. These choices increased corruption and reduced the effectiveness of programs.

3. Many of the institutions and infrastructure projects the United States built were not sustainable.

4. Counterproductive civilian and military personnel policies and practices thwarted the effort.

5. Persistent insecurity severely undermined reconstruction efforts.

6. The US government did not understand the Afghan context and therefore failed to tailor its efforts accordingly.

7. US government agencies rarely conducted sufficient monitoring and evaluation to understand the impact of their efforts.

A few final notes, which succinctly explain not only the inevitable failure to introduce and sustain democracy, but reasons why Taliban rule was arguably a foregone conclusion. First, on insecurity:

“The absence of violence was a critical precondition for everything U.S. officials tried to do in Afghanistan—yet the US effort to rebuild the country took place while it was being torn apart. For example, helping Afghans develop a credible electoral process became ever more difficult as insecurity across the country steadily worsened—intimidating voters, preventing voter registration, and closing polling stations on election day. In remote areas where the Taliban contested control, US officials were unable to make sufficient gains to convince frightened rural Afghans of the benefits of supporting their government.”

And finally, this on the decades long failure to understand the people, the power dynamics and the difference between friend and foe:

“The US government also clumsily forced Western technocratic models onto Afghan economic institutions; trained security forces in advanced weapon systems they could not understand, much less maintain; imposed formal rule of law on a country that addressed 80 to 90 percent of its disputes through informal means; and often struggled to understand or mitigate the cultural and social barriers to supporting women and girls. Without this background knowledge, U.S. officials often empowered power brokers who preyed on the population or diverted US assistance away from its intended recipients to enrich and empower themselves and their allies. Lack of knowledge at the local level meant projects intended to mitigate conflict often exacerbated it, and even inadvertently funded insurgents.”

If you have lingering doubts about President Biden’s decision to pull the plug, I think this special inspector’s report helps clarify why he made the courageous and right decision. Every day now I’m hearing from friends—journalists and academics—who are struggling to find ways to help Afghan colleagues, friends and their families flee this dangerous land and the violent reality of Taliban rule. This is the tragic ending of a story foretold when one US president chose to go and two others chose to stay.

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