What About Afghanistan’s Democracy, Joe? - OZY | A Modern Media Company

What About Afghanistan’s Democracy, Joe?

What About Afghanistan’s Democracy, Joe?

By Charu Sudan Kasturi

SourceImages Getty, Composite Sean Culligan/OZY

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

Because America seems to be turning its back on democracy in Afghanistan.

Charu Sudan Kasturi

Charu Sudan Kasturi

OZY Senior Editor Charu Sudan Kasturi's column, "Butterfly Effect," connects the dots on seemingly unrelated global headlines, highlighting what could happen next and who is likely to be impacted.

It hasn’t been that long since American democracy was shaken by the assault on the Capitol. The attack by supporters of former President Donald Trump was condemned worldwide, even as threats from far-right groups continued to keep the U.S. on edge.

Now imagine if, instead of those unequivocal condemnations, world leaders had advised the newly elected President Joe Biden to share power with extremist militias and their QAnon-peddling political nominees in the name of avoiding further violence. Is “peace” at gunpoint acceptable? What would it mean for democracy?

Those are questions worth reflecting upon as America asks Afghanistan to make such a compromise. In a terse new letter that’s been leaked to the press, Secretary of State Antony Blinken has urged Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to work toward a power-sharing deal between his democratically elected government and the Taliban.

The same Taliban that the U.S. has fought for two decades and failed to defeat. The same Taliban that Blinken warns — in the same letter — is gaining territory. The same Taliban that sheltered Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks. A Taliban that carries the potential to be infinitely more destructive than anything we saw at the Capitol. A Taliban that has been in power once before and has shown the world that it doesn’t believe in democracy or the rights of women and minorities.  

To be clear, Biden is only carrying forward the road map for Afghanistan that Trump had laid out. Amid all their other differences, Biden and Trump have both been keen to pull U.S. troops out of what has been America’s longest-ever war. In his letter to Ghani, Blinken said the U.S. might withdraw all troops by May 1.

And indeed, it can be no one’s case that America ought to stay in Afghanistan endlessly. The U.S. has lost more than 4,000 of its soldiers and civilian contractors in the war, which has cost in excess of $2 trillion. The future of Afghanistan must be settled and secured, ultimately, by Afghans.

But it’s worth asking what America has achieved through the Afghan war, and how it can best secure those gains.

In his letter to Ghani, Blinken has outlined plans to kick-start United Nations–led talks with Russia, China, India, Pakistan and Iran to formulate a joint strategy for security in Afghanistan. “It is my belief that these countries share an abiding common interest in a stable Afghanistan and must work together if we are to succeed,” he wrote. Each of these countries already has a deep presence in Afghanistan, and the U.S. has been coordinating its approach with them for some years now. Yet, by openly tying the success of its Afghan campaign to negotiations with five other nations, Biden’s team is publicly ceding leverage to capitals that don’t entirely share Washington’s broad hopes for the future of Afghanistan.

That’s particularly important at a time when America and Russia have already switched places when it comes to their appetites for overseas military excursions. Since the late 1980s, Moscow viewed the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan as a costly mistake that hastened the collapse of the USSR. But under President Vladimir Putin in recent years, the Russian state has militarily intervened in Syria and Ukraine. And in Afghanistan, Putin has been willing to work with the Taliban to weaken America’s presence there, including through bounties on U.S. soldiers. Meanwhile, there’s bipartisan support in the U.S. today for ending the war.

Listening and honoring that domestic opinion is important for any administration in Washington. But doing so the way the Biden team has proposed could prove costly.   

Any power-sharing deal between the Ghani government and the Taliban would be tantamount to giving the ultraconservative Islamist group political control over Afghanistan, especially once the U.S. pulls out its troops. The Taliban will see the U.S. advocacy for their presence in government, without having won any election, as evidence that they can rule without democratic legitimacy. Already, the Taliban is making quick territorial advances in Afghanistan, by Blinken’s own account. “Even with the continuation of financial assistance from the United States to your forces after an American military withdrawal, I am concerned that the security situation will worsen and that the Taliban could make rapid territorial gains,” he wrote.

Would the collapse of Afghanistan’s fledgling democracy, built through blood and sacrifice — mostly of Afghans — over the past two decades, be in America’s interests? Would greater Russian and Chinese influence in that country serve America well?

Yes, America must plot its exit from Afghanistan. But to do so based on the approach Biden’s team has outlined would once again underscore the hypocrisy of Washington’s proclaimed support for democracy overseas and would embolden militias elsewhere that are locked in conflict with America. The message to them? Grind down America’s patience enough and the U.S. won’t just back off — it’ll facilitate their rise to power.

If the U.S. withdraws on these terms, it’ll be an exit even more humiliating than the Soviets’ three decades ago. At least Moscow didn’t try to convince the regime it supported in Kabul to share power with the mujahedeen.

After winning the presidency, Biden boldly announced to the world that after four years of ceding global influence under Trump, “America is back.” In Kabul, that declaration rings hollow. There, America is turning its back on democracy.

Charu Sudan Kasturi

Charu Sudan Kasturi

OZY Senior Editor Charu Sudan Kasturi's column, "Butterfly Effect," connects the dots on seemingly unrelated global headlines, highlighting what could happen next and who is likely to be impacted.

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