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Is democracy really a necessity in Afghanistan?

By Christian Brose Kudos to anyone who waded all the way through my loooonnnngggg rumination on Afghanistan. Some actually have commented on it, particularly my point about continuing to support democracy. Here is Spencer Ackerman: [I]f the idea is indeed that the Afghan people are the center of gravity, they won’t bandwagon away from the ...

By Christian Brose

Kudos to anyone who waded all the way through my loooonnnngggg rumination on Afghanistan. Some actually have commented on it, particularly my point about continuing to support democracy. Here is Spencer Ackerman:

[I]f the idea is indeed that the Afghan people are the center of gravity, they won't bandwagon away from the Taliban-led insurgency without having their material and aspirational needs met, so some degree of -- for lack of a better term -- Central-Asian-Valhalla-ness is probably appropriate, even if you take the position that the core interest of the United States in Afghanistan-Pakistan is to eliminate Al Qaeda's safe havens. The question is how much Valhalla-ness? Christian, I think, doesn't offer a compelling argument for the necessity of democratization, providing instead a contention that such a thing is desirable. It certainly is, but the question is what's achievable and what's related to the national interest.

By Christian Brose

Kudos to anyone who waded all the way through my loooonnnngggg rumination on Afghanistan. Some actually have commented on it, particularly my point about continuing to support democracy. Here is Spencer Ackerman:

[I]f the idea is indeed that the Afghan people are the center of gravity, they won’t bandwagon away from the Taliban-led insurgency without having their material and aspirational needs met, so some degree of — for lack of a better term — Central-Asian-Valhalla-ness is probably appropriate, even if you take the position that the core interest of the United States in Afghanistan-Pakistan is to eliminate Al Qaeda’s safe havens. The question is how much Valhalla-ness? Christian, I think, doesn’t offer a compelling argument for the necessity of democratization, providing instead a contention that such a thing is desirable. It certainly is, but the question is what’s achievable and what’s related to the national interest.

And here is Dan Kennelly:

I think a democratic Afghanistan is worthy, wise and achievable goal. But we musn’t fall into the trap of thinking that if, say, $150 billion per year isn’t doing the trick, then surely $300 billion will. The time scale for successfully shepherding a stable and democratic regime in Afghanistan needs to be geological, involving the minimum amount of pressure on our part over a very long period of time.

I know this wasn’t Spencer’s point, but all this talk of Valhalla is a red herring, which Dan’s argument reflects. Is there anyone who seriously thinks we can or should be trying to turn Afghanistan into Germany or Japan in Central Asia — ever, let alone in the near term? Of course democratic practices and institutions are going to take a long time to become durable in Afghanistan. So, what then? We should give up on it entirely right now? We should support some alternative political order? Which is what, exactly? If not, then all of this boils down to: let’s keep helping the Afghan people build their own democracy, but let’s be prudent about it. Well, obviously.

All I’m saying is this: The Obama administration keeps talking about how it wants to "deal with the world as it is." OK, I’m all for that. And the world as it is in Afghanistan, according to the poll I cited before, is an overwhelming majority of people who want a democratic government. We don’t want it for them. We’re not imposing it on them. It’s their stated preference.

The key question is Spencer’s: democracy is surely desirable, but is it necessary? One answer is that there has to be a government in Afghanistan, and most Afghans want it to be democratic. That seems like a pretty good case for necessity to me. But let’s put that aside.

Here is the general line of reasoning that gets me to necessity: My starting assumption is we need a counterinsurgency strategy to succeed in Afghanistan, not just a counterterrorism one. If that’s the case, we need local partners to build a political order that advances the interests (most of all security) and redresses the injustices of the population, especially the so-called "reconcilable" members of the insurgency. What, then, should that political order look like? A few basic things seem obvious and unarguable: It needs to be legitimate in the eyes of most Afghans. It needs to be accountable for understanding and helping to solve their problems. It needs to take the side of justice — so not, say, leaders who enrich themselves from the narco-trade while the average Afghan remains destitute.

If this is the kind of political order we need to defeat the insurgency in Afghanistan, then how are we going to achieve those goals without supporting some form of democracy? And by democracy I mean mechanisms that enable the popular will to be expressed and that root the Afghan government, at all levels, in the consent of the governed. In short, the best way to get to legitimacy, accountability, responsibility, and justice is through a form of government that looks an awful lot like democracy.

Yes, such a government in Afghanistan must incorporate and reflect Afghan tribal customs and culture, and we should be respectful and deferential to that. This point is key, and General Petraeus was very good and eloquent on it in Munich. Still, it’s hard to imagine the political order we need in Afghanistan and call it anything other than democratic.

One last argument for necessity: What makes the Taliban an insurgency is that it’s trying to establish an alternative political order to the one the Afghan people freely elected to govern them. And we’ve all seen the Taliban’s idea of justice and popular legitimacy. This helps to explain why another fascinating recent poll shows that just 4 percent of Afghans say they want the Taliban to rule Afghanistan. Since this is "the world as it is," supporting anything other than the will of the Afghan people, and thus a democratic government that reflects it, would be to preemptively surrender the single best value that aligns us with the Afghan population and differentiates us from our common enemies.

Christian Brose is a senior editor at Foreign Policy. He served as chief speechwriter and policy advisor for U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice from 2005 to 2008, and as speechwriter for former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell from 2004 to 2005.

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