Democracy is said to be in decline around the world. According to a report by Freedom House, only 45% of the world’s countries are considered to be fully free and the percentage is trending downward. The volatile situation in Afghanistan is proof that a functioning democracy is a tough thing to create. The invasion by U.S. and NATO forces in December 2001 quickly drove the Taliban and their al-Qaida allies from power. After more than 15 years of nation building effort by NATO, the UN reported that almost 3,500 civilians were killed and 7,900 injured in the Afghan conflict during 2016. It was the highest number of civilian casualties since the UN began keeping records in 2009.
The American plan to replace Taliban rule with a democratically elected government ran into many problems. The flood of foreign cash that followed the demise of the Taliban regime in 2001 often undermined the new government or was wasted on uncoordinated projects. Well-meaning foreign aid agencies paid salaries 20 times higher than the Afghan civil service pay rate, many Afghan officials quit and went to work for the external agencies. As fighting the Taliban insurgency continues, NATO forces have dropped from a peak of 132,000 in 2011 to approximately 13,000 today. The U.S. and NATO mission in Afghanistan is estimated to have cost nearly $1 trillion between 2001 and 2014.
The beleaguered country of Afghanistan has a population of 33.3 million and is slightly smaller in size than Texas. The shaky Afghan government is faced with many difficulties, low revenue collection, a poor rate of job creation, a high level of corruption and extremely poor infrastructure. The Afghan GDP per capita is very low. In 2016, it was around $2,000. The country has a 35% unemployment rate and the population is about 38% literate. Economic growth has dropped from 14% in 2012 (when the foreign aid was freely flowing) to an estimated 2% in 2016. Afghanistan is a country with a tradition of tough warlords. Unfortunately for the struggling development process, the warlords tend to make money from the drug trade.
The resilient Taliban organization is a Sunni Islamic fundamentalist movement that emerged in 1994 as a major participant in the Afghan civil war. Holding power in Afghanistan between 1996 -2001, it allowed al-Qaida to establish a presence in the country. The Taliban establishment is characterized by a harsh enforcement of Sharia law, is viewed by many as anti-modern and is mainly composed of followers from the Pashtun ethnic group. The Taliban fighters are as crafty as they are brutal. In areas under their control, the Taliban insurgents replace the government’s justice with their own swifter, harsher and often less corrupt variety. The long running Taliban insurgency draws its support from locals with grievances, tribal animosities, global Islamist networks and the drug trade. Afghanistan is the world’s largest producer of opium.
Active in about half the country, the Taliban insurgency is also free to operate from safe havens in Pakistan’s almost lawless border areas. Around 60% to 70% of Afghans now live in areas controlled by the government. While most Afghans fear the return of the Taliban, their trust in the central government remains low. Only 29% of Afghans believe the country is moving in the right direction, for 70% physical safety is the main concern. Over 80% feel that the country’s corruption is a problem in their daily lives.
About eight years ago, Ashraf Ghani Afghanistan’s current president, coauthored a book titled “Fixing Failed States.” The book pointed out that the main reason poor countries remain poor is not due to their geography, climate or culture. The chief cause is the predatory politics that stifle economic growth. President Ghani understands that good government cannot be imposed from the outside, the country’s leaders have to want it and work for it. To get Afghanistan on its feet, he is being helped by the $3.8 billion per year in aid that has been pledged by international donors until 2020. Although the Taliban have been fought to somewhat of a stalemate, the training and support provided to the Afghan military forces will probably have to be increased if President Ghani’s government is to establish physical security throughout the country.
President Ghani has a clear view of the Afghan state’s functions that need to be improved. He wants to implement the rule of law and establish a government monopoly on the use of force. He is trying to stem corruption, improve tax collection, reform Afghan customs and procurement practices. His government strongly promotes education for women, an undertaking which was banned by the Taliban. Mr. Ghani has a tough job because he is sharing power with Abdullah Abdullah, an elected chief executive with prerogatives that are not clearly defined.
A former development expert, President Ghani has acknowledged that the job of implementing constructive change in Afghanistan has proved to be much harder than it appeared. Although Afghanistan faces a dangerous insurgency, the country has a president that is trying to impose order and promote economic development. President Ghani needs time to implement reforms. If he can get it, the decline in the world’s democracies could start to be reversed.