Academic journal article Parameters

The Afghanistan Experience: Democratization by Force

Academic journal article Parameters

The Afghanistan Experience: Democratization by Force

Article excerpt

On 7 October 2001, the Bush administration launched Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) to dislodge al Qaeda forces, neutralize the Taliban in Afghanistan, and decapitate their respective leadership. President Bush insisted that the United States was not at war with the Afghan people or with Islam, and the Afghan civilian population was not identified as the enemy. Therefore, the Pentagon attempted to minimize civilian casualties. OEF toppled the Taliban regime, but did not eliminate the Taliban influence in Afghanistan. The Taliban, although expelled from power, still preserved connections with the rural Pashtun.

Following the fall of Kabul in November 2001, the American agenda for Afghanistan rapidly metamorphosed into a nation-building project. In theory, the reconstruction and democratic reform of Afghanistan offered an opportunity to transform one of the poorest countries on earth. Afghanistan had a 90 percent illiteracy rate, one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world, and an average life expectancy of just over forty years. The living conditions for women were particularly harsh and cruel, since the Taliban had restricted their access to education, health care, and work. President Bush justified nation-building in Afghanistan in moral and political terms. After liberating "[Afghanistan] from a primitive dictatorship ... we had a moral obligation to leave behind something better. We also had a strategic interest in helping the Afghan people build a free society ... because a democratic Afghanistan would be a hopeful alternative to the vision of the extremists." (1) The idea of liberation played an overwhelming role in President Bush's postwar strategy for Afghanistan. The Bush administration assumed that once freed from the shackles of the Taliban tyranny, the Afghan population would embrace the Western agenda of reconstruction and institutional development. The Western allies put in place an interim government in Kabul led by Hamid Karzai, and the loya jirga approved a new constitution in 2003. The International Security Assistance Force, under British command, began training a new Afghan army, and the United Nations developed a humanitarian assistance plan as well as educational initiatives to combat illiteracy and increase educational opportunities for girls and women.

It is evident the ambitious American-led project of democratization faltered. After eleven years of combat, the United States and its North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies have drastically modified their objectives in Afghanistan. President Obama decided to withdraw the majority of American forces by 2014, and his administration has narrowed the aims of American intervention in the country. The Obama administration's goal is to leave behind native military and police structures that in principle should prevent al Qaeda and other terrorist groups from operating with impunity. Why has the United States been unable to accomplish its original objectives in Afghanistan when it was able to radically transform two formidable enemies, Germany and Japan, following World War II (WWII)?

Several competing explanations have been advanced to explain this failure. David Edelstein, Chair of the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, claims that military occupations succeed only if they occur in a "threat environment" in which the security, survival, and integrity of an occupied territory is menaced. According to Edelstein, in the absence of a strong and believable external threat, the desire for self determination is inevitable, and the emergence of a significant movement of resistance, unavoidable. (2) Dov S. Zakheim, the former Undersecretary of Defense, claims the Bush administration seriously underfunded the reconstruction of Afghanistan because it had become increasingly focused on Iraq. (3) In fact, Afghanistan received less assistance per capita than did postconflict Bosnia and Kosovo, and the budget for the reconstruction of Afghanistan amounted to less than half of what the United States spent in Iraq. …

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