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The U.S. couldn’t build Afghanistan a democracy. That rarely works.

Regimes battling a counterinsurgency often depend on corruption to stay in power

- August 31, 2021

As the Taliban swept into Kabul after the collapse of the Afghan government, former military and civilian leaders chastised the Biden administration for pulling U.S. troops out too soon. The U.S. military, they argued, could have prevented the disaster and used its might to keep trying to build a democratic state.

To stabilize the country, these critics argued, the United States should have stayed longer, until the Afghan military could stand on its own, until the government was stronger, until the Taliban was defeated.

But the history of great power interventions into insurgencies suggests that efforts to stabilize Afghanistan through democratization would have been futile. My research explains why the success of great power interventions to stabilize countries relies heavily on coercion and corruption, rather than democratizing overhauls.

Successful counterinsurgency involves dirty deals

Those who argue that building good governance is the solution to insurgency routinely point to historical examples to support their claims. Commentators generally cite five successful modern-day counterinsurgency campaigns as models for today’s military interventions: the Malayan Emergency, the Greek civil war, the anti-Huk campaign in the Philippines, the Salvadoran civil war and the campaign in Dhofar, Oman.

This narrative is largely a myth. Instead of using democratizing overhauls to build stability, the threatened governments — backed by great power interveners — defeated insurgents by force. They attacked insurgents directly to break their will to fight, while closely controlling the civilian population to block the flow of resources to the insurgency.

Taliban leaders are back in charge in Afghanistan. Can they control their own army?

In Malaya, between 1948 and 1957 the British forcibly resettled some 500,000 people into New Villages, prison camps where food was rationed and inhabitants underwent frequent searches for contraband. In Dhofar in the 1960s and 1970s, the British-led military tightly controlled civilian communities, destroyed civilian food crops and livestock, and poisoned community wells.

During the final phase of the Greek civil war, from 1947 to 1949, U.S.-backed governments drove 700,000 civilians out of their homes. They sent civilians and soldiers considered politically suspect to poverty-stricken islands without resources to support them.

And in El Salvador, the U.S.-backed government tried and failed to exert military control over communities. During the war, from 1979 to 1992, security forces assassinated civic leaders, priests and organizers and even destroyed entire communities.

In all these cases, the outside powers backing the government demanded democratizing actions to gain the popular support they believed was necessary to defeat the insurgency. And in all these cases, government elites resisted — and remained in power by accommodating the personal interests of rival elites, often including insurgents and warlords, to gain information, cooperation and fighting power.

In Malaya, for example, the British gave up their hope for a liberal, pluralistic state. Resistance from the politically dominant ethnic Malays forced Britain to support a system of ethnically based political coalitions that still privileges ethnic Malays over ethnic Chinese and ethnic Indians.

All these countries achieved relative stability, but none are robust democracies. Greece, for instance, struggles to consolidate its wobbly democracy. El Salvador, with a long history of military-dominated governments, remains fragile and repressive. Oman is a traditional monarchy.

In Afghanistan, successive Western-backed governments haven’t been able to reduce corruption or security forces’ violence against civilians. Afghan military leaders kept “ghost soldiers” on the books to collect the nonexistent soldiers’ salaries despite repeated crackdowns. National leaders paid off warlords and moved repressive governors from province to province rather than pull them from public office.

Northern Afghanistan once kept out the Taliban. Why has it fallen so quickly this time?

Afghanistan’s democratic elections left serious concerns about election fraud, as well as the challenges of holding a free and fair vote during a civil war. U.S.-brokered power-sharing agreements helped maintain a facade of political unity.

Why counterinsurgency governments resist restructuring

The governments in these five examples, to varying degrees, relied on co-optation of strongmen and military control of civilians to stay in power. Even the not-corrupt British rulers of Malaya didn’t implement the changes they thought they needed to defeat the insurgency.

These governments saw little incentive to make changes that were likely to strip away wealth and power from the elites in charge. As my recent analysis in Foreign Affairs points out, such changes meant regime suicide — and the United States lacks the power to manipulate political interests within other countries.

In Afghanistan, neither the Karzai government nor the Ghani government was likely to do more than promise to address demands for change. Survival required deals with warlords and other corrupt individuals, which helps explain the bags of dollars the CIA delivered to the president’s office to help keep Hamid Karzai in power.

Afghans did not always welcome Western efforts to bring Afghans democracy. The U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction reports that pervasive corruption meant Afghanistan’s officials skimmed off external aid as it traveled from the central government to outlying areas. International aid even funded insurgents. U.S. efforts to rebuild and democratize Afghanistan were undercut by bribery at all levels and by a lack of understanding of Afghan governance, society and politics.

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What would help Afghanistan now?

A number of experts point out that what matters now, rather than a blame game, is helping Afghans. Research focusing on the significance of a global effort points the way. Methods include accepting and supporting refugees, funding refugee organizations and international organizations like UNICEF, and helping refugee-receiving countries.

Afghanistan shows there are problems the U.S. military cannot fix. But the international community has helped individual Afghans with literacy programs, especially for girls, educational opportunities, health care, support for women fleeing family violence, and efforts to develop an independent media.

All this assistance provided individual Afghans with critical resources that they themselves wanted. These efforts, not military force, helped build the societal changes many Afghans hoped to see. Looming changes in many of these areas are what make recent events all the more bitter.

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Jacqueline L. Hazelton is an associate professor at the U.S. Naval War College and the author of “Bullets Not Ballots: Success in Counterinsurgency Warfare” (Cornell University Press, 2021). The views expressed here are her own and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. government.