The End of the Afghan Democracy Dream?

Shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic monopolized headlines in the West, the United States under the administration of Donald Trump signed a historic deal with the unlikeliest of partners. On February 29, the United States and the Taliban concluded an agreement to bring an end to America’s military engagement in Afghanistan after almost two decades.

The talks leading up to the deal lasted nearly two years and were themselves a reflection of the United States’ time in the war-torn country: long, arduous, and painful. At one point last September, President Trump declared the talks “dead” following a Taliban attack that killed a U.S. soldier. But with the president determined to win some gains before this year’s elections, a breakthrough was always in the cards.

For years, Trump has framed his key objective in Afghanistan as the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the country. And sure enough, the deal focused almost entirely on that goal: The United States and its coalition partners are scheduled to withdraw all military forces within 14 months. The Taliban has pledged to facilitate this by posing no security threats to the U.S. and its allies from Afghan soil. In return, the deal says, the United States will work toward the release of Taliban prisoners and the removal of sanctions.

The deal’s narrow definition of U.S. objectives is in stark contrast to Washington’s goals at the start of the long war. In 2002, President George W. Bush said that “[America’s] commitment to a stable and free and peaceful Afghanistan is a long-term commitment.”

Yet, 17 years later, Trump has decided that the United States can no longer realistically achieve this end. Under the deal, Washington’s objectives are now limited to countering threats to the U.S. alone. There are no provisions in it for a “stable and free and peaceful Afghanistan,” let alone mentioning strengthening democracy or ensuring Taliban participation in civilian politics. These difficult tasks are left to “intra-Afghan negotiations,” which are to include key local stakeholders. The deal hopes, for instance, that land currently under the Taliban will eventually be ruled by a new government to be formed through these negotiations.

Trump’s hands-off approach in determining Afghanistan’s political future makes sense; Afghans should take charge of their own future without foreign interference. But the problem is that U.S. troops are not leaving behind an even playing ground. By most counts, the Taliban have a clear advantage over any other stakeholder. The Afghan civilian government was not a part of the talks – which means that its interests have not been addressed. But more importantly, it is increasingly clear that their security forces are still no match for the Taliban’s military capacity. To make matters worse, the government has itself been fractured by two competing claims to the presidency, indicating the fragility of democratic institutions.

The United States is well aware of these problems. Just a week after the deal was announced, when Trump was asked whether the Afghan government had the capability to defend itself, he simply said, “We’ll have to see what happens.” A day later, reports quoted U.S. intelligence officers as saying that the Taliban would not honor their commitments.

Meanwhile, the Taliban have been determined to stamp their authority – with little intention of joining the civilian mainstream. Just days after the agreement, the Taliban ramped up warfare against Afghan government forces. On March 4, the militants undertook 43 attacks in a single day against government forces. Nine days later, they struck again as many as 95 times in 24 hours.

The Taliban are likely to be careful not to attack U.S. troops. They know that Washington is desperate to leave, and if the Taliban poses no threat to any American soldiers, Trump will declare victory and pull out. But if U.S. troops were to withdraw now, they would be putting the Taliban in charge, unchallenged as the most powerful, armed stakeholder.

This would be a significant reward for the Taliban’s violent tendencies – and a big blow to any hopes of establishing a stable and inclusive democracy in Afghanistan. With a clear military advantage, the Taliban would seek to bully its way to domination. And the reinforced belief that brute strength is the way to power would spell the end for any civilian politics in Afghanistan.

Geopolitically, the biggest loser in the region will be India. Since 2001, India has sought to build credibility for its global leadership aspirations through its work in Afghanistan. New Delhi has spent billions of dollars in the country, making Afghanistan its most ambitious state-building project anywhere in the world. Apart from dams, hospitals, and schools, India has also been a key sponsor of the democracy project. Most famously, New Delhi built the Afghan parliament for a cost of $150 million. In addition, it has also been a proactive partner in establishing a credible election process in Afghanistan – and even spent funds on developing a nascent media sector in the country, according to a 2010 German research report.

But India has been doing all of this without any military boots on the ground. Instead, for the security of its own projects, New Delhi has been relying on the tense peace upheld by U.S. forces. In the post-U.S. era, this reliance will become a huge problem. Apart from the fragile Afghan government, India has no reliable partners in the country or the region: China, Pakistan, and the Taliban – the other major players – are all far from favorably disposed toward New Delhi.

India has long hoped to hold Afghanistan up as a success story in its foreign policy. But if the Taliban establishes a violent takeover, India’s state-building project will inevitably come under attack. And unless it finds a way to fill the security vacuum itself, New Delhi will likely have to abandon its own engagement.

If Trump leaves Afghanistan and India follows, Afghanistan’s hopes for a stable democracy would be all but over. Under the military might of the Taliban, Afghanistan stares once more at a Hobbesian nightmare. After two decades, it looks like the country is back to square one again.

(c) 2020, The Diplomat