The U.S. and Democratization in Afghanistan

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Mark N. Katz

Senior Fellow

As in Iraq, the United States and its allies did achieve some important successes in Afghanistan. Not only was the Taliban regime driven from power after just a couple of months from the launch of the U.S.-led intervention in October 2001, but this was done with fewer than 3,000 U.S. troops. The United States also succeeded in arming and coordinating with several different Afghan opposition groups from different parts of the country; these played a highly important role in driving out the Taliban. Further, the United States was far more successful in building an international coalition to support its intervention in Afghanistan than for its intervention in Iraq. Finally, the United States succeeded in organizing elections for an Afghan president and an Afghan parliament. It is not surprising, then, that from 2003 through about 2007, the United States appeared to be far more successful using far fewer resources in Afghanistan than in Iraq.

Now, though, the situation in Afghanistan appears even grimmer than the one in Iraq. From their sanctuaries across the border in Pakistan, the Taliban have made a comeback in southern Afghanistan and have even pushed into the north of the country, which was previously considered safe from them. The American-backed government of Hamid Karzai has proven to be both extremely weak and extremely corrupt. America’s NATO allies have either withdrawn or are in the process of withdrawing their troops, as involvement in the Afghan war has become increasingly unpopular with their electorates. President Obama has greatly increased the number of American troops in Afghanistan, but he has also made clear that he intends to start withdrawing them in mid-2011, since this war has also become unpopular with the American public. At this point, the prospects for building a stable democracy in Afghanistan appear very poor.

American policy must bear much of the blame for this state of affairs. Had the United States not intervened in Iraq but devoted the immense resources it spent there on Afghanistan instead, perhaps the security situation in Afghanistan could have been stabilized; perhaps democratization would then have had a better chance to take root. More important, though, the American-led democratization effort in Afghanistan appears to have been flawed from the beginning. Unlike in Iraq — where the United States constructed a parliamentary system with some checks and balances and where local as well as national elections have taken place — in Afghanistan the United States set up a centralized presidential system with a weak parliament unable to check the president, who appoints all the provincial governors. Further, the Bush administration did not oversee a process allowing Afghans to freely choose their first post-Taliban president, but selected Hamid Karzai for this position and pushed the Afghans into ratifying this choice.

To be fair, one of the Bush administration’s motives for choosing Karzai was the hope that he would be able to overcome Afghanistan’s ethnic divides and enjoy nationwide appeal. A Pushtun from southern Afganistan, Karzai was reputed to have strong connections in the non-Pushtun north. Thus, in addition to being able to work well with northerners, Karzai might be able to appeal to his fellow Pushtuns and draw them away from the Taliban. This, unfortunately, has not occurred. For in addition to being seen as corrupt, ineffective and fraudulently reelected in 2009, Karzai does not appear to have strong support either in the north or the south of the country.

There are other obstacles to democracy and stability in Afghanistan, though, which the United States is not responsible for. Foremost among these is neighboring Pakistan’s inability — indeed, unwillingness — to stop the Afghan Taliban from enjoying safe haven in Pakistani territory or from supporting their colleagues across the border in subverting Western nation-building efforts. Pakistan has pursued an ambiguous policy of supporting the U.S./NATO military mission in Afghanistan and the Taliban. Pakistan backed the Taliban during its rise to power in the 1990s and during 1996-2001, when it ruled most of the country. Powerful elements within the Pakistani military and intelligence establishments reportedly perceived this as advantageous to Pakistan in its ongoing competition with India. Due to a Pakistani conviction that America would eventually tire of its intervention and leave Afghanistan (much as the Soviets did), Islamabad has continued to support the Afghan Taliban, which it sees as an ally opposing the rise of Indian influence in Afghanistan. Washington, for its part, has so far been unable to persuade Pakistan — which it is highly dependent upon as a transit route for American military supplies into Afghanistan — to end its support for the Taliban. Pakistan, then, has facilitated the resurgence of the Taliban, allowing them, among other things, to disrupt voting in southern Afghanistan, both in the 2009 presidential and the 2010 parliamentary elections.

In addition, the United States is not responsible for the hostility that exists between Afghanistan’s ethnic communities — especially between the Pushtuns in the south and the non-Pushtuns (Uzbeks, Tajiks, Hazaras and others) elsewhere. As in Iraq, this is something that long pre-dated the U.S.-led intervention after 9/11. Pushtuns were the dominant ethnic group in the Afghan kingdom from its emergence in the early eighteenth century until its demise in 1973. The leadership of the first Afghan “republic” (1973-78) was also Pushtun (indeed, the leader of the 1973 coup, who became president, was a member of the royal family). During the period of Marxist rule (1978-92), however, non-Pushtuns — especially Uzbeks and Tajiks — gained prominence in the government. The principal opposition that arose against the Marxist regime and Soviet occupation (supported by America and others via Pakistan) was Pushtun. Non-Pushtuns, though, also opposed the Soviet occupation, especially a principally Tajik group in the Panjshir Valley led by Ahmed Shah Massoud. Pushtun and non-Pushtun opposition groups, however, usually did not work well together; indeed, there was much infighting, even within the ranks of primarily Pushtun opposition movements based in Pakistan. The conflict in Afghanistan between the Soviet-backed Marxist regime and its opponents, then, was not just a conflict about ideology, but also about ethnic dominance.

Under Gorbachev, Soviet forces were withdrawn from Afghanistan by early 1989. With support from Moscow (until the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991) and divisions among its opponents, the Marxist regime lasted until April 1992. While Uzbeks and Tajiks remained predominant in the “Islamic state” that first replaced it, the Taliban, by contrast, was composed primarily of Pushtuns. Its seizure of power in most (but not all) of Afghanistan in 1996 represented a reassertion of the Pushtun dominance over the country that had ended under Marxist rule.

During the brief period it held power from 1996 to 2001, Taliban rule became unpopular, not just with non-Pushtuns but with many Pushtuns as well. This fact greatly assisted the United States in rapidly bringing about the downfall of the Taliban regime less than three months after 9/11. Mindful of Afghanistan’s ethnic divisions, the Bush administration tried to balance its support between non-Pushtuns in the north and Pushtuns in the south. The United States, though, did not reinstate Burhanuddin Rabbani, the Tajik president of the first Afghan Islamic republic, which the Taliban ousted in 1996 but which remained the Afghan government that was recognized by most other countries. Instead, Washington pushed for the anti-Taliban Pushtun opposition leader, Hamid Karzai, to become president in an effort to appeal to the Pushtun south. The American-supported Afghan government’s military, however, is dominated by northerners. As The Economist observed on August 21, 2010, “Less than 3 percent of recruits are from the troublesome Pushtun south, from where the Taliban draw most support. Few will sign up, fearing ruthless intimidation against government ‘collaborators’ and their families.”

As in Iraq, the U.S.-led intervention altered the existing ethnic balance in Afghanistan. Just as the Soviet intervention had done, the American intervention ended the Pushtun dominance that had existed under the monarchy, the first republic and the Taliban. Unlike in Iraq, however, where the previously dominant Arab Sunnis are a minority (about 20 percent) and the Arab Shias are the majority, the Pushtuns are the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, constituting about 40 percent of the population. Without an American military presence, the Pushtuns would be in a much stronger position to forcibly reestablish their dominance over Afghanistan than the Arab Sunnis would be to reestablish theirs in Iraq.

Despite the growing American troop presence in Afghanistan since late 2001, peace has not been achieved between Pushtuns and non-Pushtuns. Unless this changes, the prospects for stable democracy emerging in Afghanistan appear to be extremely poor, whether American forces remain there or not.

Mark N. Katz is a Visiting Senior Fellow at the Middle East Policy Council and a Professor of Government at George Mason University. Links to many of his publications can be found on his website:

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  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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