Has the West tried to build liberal democracy in Afghanistan?
by Ian Sinclair
5 September 2021
As the Taliban approached Kabul in mid-August, Channel 4 News’s Chief Correspondent Alex Thomson noted on Twitter that the West has been “obsessed about trying to turn Afghanistan into Sweden with sand, fetishising democracy and educating women” but “Afghans outside Kabul kept telling me the Taliban ended corruption and brought security which they want first and foremost.”
The idea the West is sincerely interested in spreading democracy in Afghanistan is widely believed across the political spectrum. For example, in the recent House of Commons session devoted to the Afghan crisis, the brilliant Labour MP Zarah Sultana warned “the West cannot build liberal democracies with bombs and bullets.” This, she noted, was a “dangerous fantasy cooked up by neo-conservative fanatics in Washington and championed by their faithful followers in London.”
Certainly the US and UK governments and their cheerleaders in the media often claim benign intentions. However, if we take seriously Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano’s dictum that “in general, the words uttered by power are not meant to express its actions but to disguise them” then it’s vital to consider the West’s deeds in Afghanistan, rather than its public statements.
So what does the historical record show?
Following the US-led invasion of Afghanistan on 7 October 2001, in December 2001 the New York Times reported the military campaign “has returned to power nearly all of the same warlords who had misruled the country in the days before the Taliban.” Hamid Karzai, “a previously little-known figure nationally who controls no real army of his own and no territory… was handpicked by the United States” to head the interim government.
Karzai was installed in early December 2001at a gathering of key Afghan players in Bonn, Germany. “The Bonn conference was only for show,” Haji Attaullah, a Pashtun delegate, told the New York Times. ”The decisions had been made before.” Writing in their 2006 book Bleeding Afghanistan, Sonali Kolhatkar and James Ingalls concur, arguing “This new Afghan ‘democracy’ was ultimately not shaped by ordinary Afghans, but by the US and its agent Zalmay Khalilzad.”
Born in Afghanistan and ensconced in the US foreign policy establishment since the late 70s, Khalilzad was appointed as the US Special Presidential Envoy for Afghanistan in December 2001. Then, from November 2003 to June 2005, he served as US ambassador to Afghanistan. “No major decisions by the Afghan government have been made without his involvement”, a 2005 BBC report noted. “He has sometimes been dubbed the viceroy, or the real president of Afghanistan.”
His job, the New York Times explained in 2004 without a hint of self-awareness, was “to ensure that the elements friendly to America gain ascendency in a democratic Afghanistan.”
Karzai himself went onto to win two dubious presidential elections in 2004 and 2009 – exercises perhaps best described as “demonstration elections”, which Edward Herman defined in 1992 as “the art of staging elections in Third World client states as a means of assuring the home populace that a US interventionary process is meritorious and serves a higher purpose.”
In 2013 the New York Times reported “For more than a decade, wads of American dollars packed into suitcases, backpacks and, on occasion, plastic shopping bags have been dropped off every month or so at the offices of Afghanistan’s president — courtesy of the Central Intelligence Agency.” Khalil Roman, Karzai’s deputy chief of staff from 2002 until 2005, said “It came in secret, and it left in secret.” The New York Times noted some American officials told the paper “the cash has fueled corruption and empowered warlords.” Indeed, according to one US official, “The biggest source of corruption in Afghanistan was the United States.”
No doubt Swedes reading all this will recognise the close similarities to their own nation’s political system.
The reviled night-time kill and capture operations (night raids) conducted by US Special Forces give another window into the West’s real position on democracy in Afghanistan. In February 2009 a leaked US diplomatic cable showed Karzai asking the US Under-Secretary of Defence Policy for a limit on the raids. Karzai, it seems, was ignored, with a 2011 Open Society Foundations study noting a fivefold increase in raids between February 2009 and December 2010, with a total of 1,700 raids between December 2010 and February 2011. A deal was eventually brokered between Karzai and the US in April 2012 to shift control of night raids over to the Afghan government. However, Atlantic magazine explained the agreement “appears to offer Karzai an applause line for speeches rather than significant changes in the way raids are carried out.” The night raids – and the extrajudicial killings and human rights abuses that occurred on them – continued, albeit now nominally led by Afghan forces.
With the Afghan president perhaps becoming a little too independent for the US’s liking, the Guardian reported in 2014 that the US had attempted to intervene in Afghan elections. Citing the memoir of US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the newspaper noted “top US diplomats connived in delaying an Afghan presidential election in 2009 and then tried to manipulate the outcome in a ‘clumsy and failed putsch’ that aimed to oust” Karzai.
In addition to all this, any summary of the West’s role in Afghanistan needs to include the torture centre at Bagram airbase and the thousands of Afghans killed by airstrikes carried out by the US, UK and their allies (in the past five years 40 percent of all civilian casualties from airstrikes were children, according to UN data). Speaking to journalist Sandy Gall, General David Richards, the former UK Chief of Defence Staff, said in the early stage of the British deployment to Helmand “we ended up killing a lot of people, destroying lots of bazaars and mosques.”
And what about the armed militias roaming the country? Reporting from Afghanistan, in July the Guardian’s Emma Graham-Harrison made the astonishing claim Afghan officials “are embracing militias, after years of western-backed efforts to disarm the country’s unofficial bands of armed men”. The truth is the opposite: a 2019 study from the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University noted “the CIA is still running local militias in operations against the Taliban and other Islamist militants”. The study goes on to note “the militias reportedly have committed serious human rights abuses, including numerous extrajudicial killings of civilians” and that “CIA sponsorship ensures that their operations are clouded in secrecy. There is virtually no public oversight of their activities or accountability”.
As David Wearing, a Teaching Fellow in International Relations at Royal Holloway, University of London, wrote in a Guardian in 2013, “the idea that the British state’s involvement in Afghanistan was due to some principled commitment to democracy and human rights is one that scarcely passes the laugh test.”
Patricia Gossman, Associate Director for the Asia division of Human Rights Watch, echoed Wearing’s analysis in May: “The United States has since 2001 consistently subordinated human rights and good governance to short-term political objectives, partnering and funding Afghan warlords who used their new power to target not just the Taliban, but local rivals.”
The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan put it more forcefully on the twelfth anniversary of the 2001 invasion: “The US government and its allies promised our people democracy, but imposed upon them the most undemocratic, corrupt, and mafia government of our history”.
Rather than “Sweden with sand”, the evidence suggests the West’s primary goal has been the creation of a client state in Afghanistan – “a politically and militarily allied government in a strategically important country”, Wearing explains.
None of this will be a surprise for those who are close observers of Western foreign policy. Jane Kinninmont, Deputy Head of the Middle East and North Africa programme at Chatham House thinktank in 2013, provided the key context: “The long history of Anglo-American great-power involvement in the Middle East… has, for the most part, not involved an effort to democratise the region.”
“Rather, the general trend has been to either support authoritarian rulers who were already in place, or to participate in the active consolidation of authoritarian rule, including strong military and intelligence cooperation, as long as these rulers have been seen as supporting Western interests more than popularly elected governments would.”
Western democracy promotion in Afghanistan? To paraphrase Gandhi: it would be a good idea.
Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.