With the Taliban back in power, the United States and the international community are forced to confront Afghanistan’s failure to develop into a stable, functioning, democratic state. Despite more than $2 trillion invested in nearly 20 years of state-building, and after the deaths of more than 110,000 Afghans and 2,400 U.S. troops, the Afghan government never established authority over the country’s full territory—or was able to provide effective or reliable public services to areas it did rule. And despite nearly two decades of training, Afghanistan’s military more or less disintegrated before the Taliban, surrendering control of the country in a matter of weeks. Why couldn’t democracy take root?

Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, has written seven books on democracy and edited more than 40 on democratic development globally. In 2004, Diamond served as a senior adviser on governance to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad. In his view, the United States invaded Afghanistan and Iraq primarily for security reasons, not to turn them into democracies. The two countries were, he adds, exceptionally difficult cases for democratic state-building—on account of their histories; powerful, meddling neighbors; and identity clashes among the populations. Neither state, post-conflict, could provide physical security to its citizens, and both suffered from endemic corruption. As Diamond sees it, the collapse in Afghanistan comes at a time when democracy is in retreat worldwide: China and Russia seek to undermine democratic regimes and support authoritarians, while many states face rising income inequality and a weakening rule of law, while the West has cut back on democracy promotion. Afghanistan may have fallen under Taliban rule again, but, Diamond says, the world’s democracies need to strengthen their commitment to confronting China and Russia, and to defending democratic norms and values globally.

Michael Bluhm: What prevented Afghanistan and Iraq from becoming free, functioning, stable democracies?

Larry Diamond: It was never realistic to expect that they would become free, functioning, and stable democracies within a decade or even two. The goal in each case was not democracy promotion—it was security-related.

In the case of Afghanistan, we had to intervene militarily to displace al-Qaeda. I believe that was the right decision, from an American national-security standpoint. We could all ask ourselves, would it have been better if we had just appointed a warlord and left, or would it have been better if we had done all the things that we tried to do to educate girls, promote civil society, the rule of law, and liberal values and ideas?

There are multiple reasons why the Afghan government is falling. This was the predictable consequence of America announcing that it was completely pulling out militarily. You can argue—as the Biden administration does—that after 20 years, it was enough already. Or you could argue—as I was inclined to—that the modest commitment of troops was worth the price of keeping the Taliban from ruling the country and acting as a steel spine to strengthen the Afghan security forces and the Afghan state—and to strengthen the psychology of expectations that the Afghan project, however democratic it was or failed to be, could survive.

Shoeib Abolhassa

If corruption could have been reduced—and one could say that was impossible—it might have been possible to create a more viable state. It has been so difficult to fight the Taliban because Afghan military commanders have been stealing the salaries of their soldiers. If we could have set up a mobile banking and payment system—a lot of lower-income countries in Africa are starting to develop these systems—and deposited soldiers’ salaries directly into mobile bank accounts, that alone might have strengthened the Afghan state’s ability to defend itself, by taking away one of the major reasons why soldiers have been defecting, and by taking away one of the major incentives for worthless, corrupt people to become military commanders.

It is a mistake to measure democracy promotion against the hardest cases of post-conflict state reconstruction and stabilization. It was not realistic to expect that either country would become a democracy. If they became viable states with some degree of political pluralism and respect for the rights of women and minorities, that would be an achievement over what existed in Iraq before the invasion and what existed in Afghanistan before the American intervention.

That doesn’t mean that we should have invaded Iraq. The war was a terrible mistake; it was an unnecessary intervention. But once we made the intervention, broke the country, and inherited responsibility for mediating some reconstruction, an effort to promote civil society, to help the Iraqis design a constitutional system, to preserve some elements of political pluralism, to provide assistance to Iraqi civil society and independent media—these were the right things to do. In Kurdistan, that’s gone farther and worked a little better.

To summarize, it’s wrong to condemn democracy promotion as an exercise by pointing to its failures in the most formidably difficult circumstances, and it’s wrong to identify the American interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq as principally exercises in democracy promotion.

It’s wrong to condemn democracy promotion as an exercise by pointing to its failures in the most formidably difficult circumstances, and it’s wrong to identify the American interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq as principally exercises in democracy promotion.

I belabor this point because there are people who take the failure of democratic state-building in Afghanistan and Iraq as general condemnations of the project.

Bluhm: Why did democracy fail to take root in Afghanistan or Iraq? Of course, each country has its own distinctive circumstances, so the reasons might differ.

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