Overcoming the Obstacles to Establishing a Democratic State in Afghanistan
Authored by Colonel Dennis O. Young. | October 2007
After the Taliban regime was driven out of Afghanistan in late 2001, the United States and other members of the international community undertook efforts to establish and stabilize a liberal democratic form of government in that country. Such an undertaking is a monumental task, fraught with many obstacles and challenges. This paper looks at several of the obstacles to democracy in Afghanistan, to include the absence of a democratic history and tradition, an endemic culture of corruption, a pervasive narcotics trade and drug trafficking problem, tribalism and ethnic divides among the population, and finally the lack of support or assistance from neighboring Pakistan. The author proposes five possible strategies and adjustments to current efforts by the international community, led by the United States and International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). If these strategies are adopted, the environment in Afghanistan will be more secure, the government more stable, and liberal democracy will have a much greater chance of taking hold and flourishing. Afghanistan and this region of the world will also be less likely to harbor terrorist operations and organizations such as al-Qaeda and the Taliban to threaten the democratic nations of the world.
Overcoming the obstacles to bringing a liberal democratic form of government to Afghanistan will be an arduous task. In late 2001, the country was operating under a total theocracy with few freedoms and absent a functioning governmental infrastructure. To transform this inheritance into a stable liberal democracy will require a safe and secure environment, massive economic aid, and a long-term commitment from the international community, particularly ISAF, the UN, and the United States. The cost to rebuild and stabilize Afghanistan will be billions of dollars annually.
At present, no single, comprehensive national security strategy exists that specifically outlines how the United States will secure, stabilize, and democratize Afghanistan. The Bush administration has pushed for NATO and ISAF to take the lead in reconstruction and stabilization efforts. While NATO and ISAF can be effective in certain specific missions, their leadership by committee and consensus and their unwillingness to commit the necessary troops, financial support, and long-term commitment calls into question their capacity to lead the overall effort. The UN also has a mission, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), but this effort, too, is woefully inadequate to meet the monumental challenges of rebuilding, securing, and stabilizing a democratic Afghanistan.
The global war on terrorism placed Afghanistan at the forefront of efforts to stop alQaeda and the Taliban from perpetuating future terrorist operations and to prevent them from using Afghanistan as a safe haven for a second time. However, Afghanistan has become the "forgotten war," taking a backseat to the war in Iraq in terms of diplomacy and resources. President Karzai has implored the United States and the international community for more military forces and financial assistance to rebuild his country. Several military experts have also highlighted the need in recent months to refocus attention and efforts on Afghanistan. Former ISAF Commander General David Richards, and General James L. Jones, Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, both stated that NATO members need to significantly increase current NATO force levels in Afghanistan. Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates echoed the stance that operations in Afghanistan need more troops. After a recent visit to Afghanistan, General Barry McCaffrey, USA (Retired), indicated that "rhetoric and political will cannot achieve our goals. Afghanistan needs strong U.S. interagency and Congressional support to provide the dollars, equipment, combat soldiers, ANA and ANP mentors, and vigorous NATO and Afghan leadership to pull this mission from the fire."82 Finally, to illustrate the urgency of needs in Afghanistan, Lieutenant General Karl Eikenberry, after serving for 2 years as the U.S. Commander in Afghanistan, told a congressional panel that "a point could be reached at which the government of Afghanistan becomes irrelevant to its people, and the goal of establishing a democratic, moderate, self-sustaining state could be lost forever."83
The international community, led by the United States and NATO, should provide the military forces, economic aid, mentorship and assistance necessary to establish a stable and secure environment for a liberal democratic state to take root in Afghanistan. In addition, the Bush administration should refocus energies, efforts, troops, and capital back to Afghanistan, again making it a major priority in the global war on terrorism. If operations in Afghanistan continue to be waged "on the cheap," efforts to rebuild and democratize this country will likely fail, leaving behind a broken state ripe again for the infiltration of religious extremists and terrorism. Despite the obstacles and difficulties, the United States must lead the international community in a critical and successful fight for freedom and democracy in Afghanistan.
82. Barry R. McCaffrey, General U.S. Army, Retired, "After Action Report—Visit Afghanistan and Pakistan, 16-23 February 2007," memorandum for Colonel Michael Meese, Professor and Head, Department of Social Sciences, U.S. Military Academy, West Point, NY, February 26, 2007.
83. Griff Witte, "Afghans See Marked Decline since 2005," The Washington Post, February 24, 2007, sec. A, p. 11