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The U.S. involvement in Afghanistan is a story of democracy and its shortcomings. In this piece, Steve Inskeep — host of NPR’s Morning Edition, as well as NPR’s morning news podcast Up First — analyzes how the United States inadvertently took on a mission to democratize Afghanistan, and instead undermined democracy at home, as unpopular wars tend to do.
In 2001, Americans pictured the Afghanistan war as a defense of their democracy. People didn’t talk of reforming the country, just punishing the 9/11 attackers.
In Afghanistan’s mountains that fall, I watched American B-52 bombers in a clear sky, and felt the concussion as bombs blasted Taliban fighters near the city of Kunduz. Some fled, some surrendered, and others were still lying dead in the streets when I entered the city after the battle.
But U.S. forces did not occupy the city or try to govern it. That task belonged to Afghan militias, who drove old Russian tanks on bomb-cratered roads under the leadership of brutally undemocratic warlords.
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Only later did President George W. Bush expand the mission. He said the U.S. had an interest in a “democratic Afghanistan” as a “hopeful alternative” to extremists. Under American protection, women attended school, new businesses opened and the free media flourished.
But the government was never more than nominally elected, in deeply flawed votes.
The old warlords were part of that government, and corruption flourished even more than the media. Driving into southern Afghanistan in 2002, my car was pulled over by a truckload of gunmen, who were the new local authorities. They took me to the police station and demanded a “tax” to pass. I refused and somehow was released, but while I was there, another captive paid.
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It was a glimpse of Afghanistan’s future. Sarah Chayes, a former NPR correspondent, lived in the southern city of Kandahar in the early 2000’s and says Afghans told her: “The Taliban shake us down at night, and the government shakes us down in the daytime.” In later years, Chayes became an adviser to the U.S. military, and says the corruption only grew worse. “And so my question is: What democracy did we bring to Afghanistan?”
An American inspector general reported that when the U.S. sent money to Afghanistan, much of it was transferred into the bank accounts of well-connected Afghans in Dubai.Corruption undermined the Afghan military, which the U.S. had to support. Eventually the war with the Taliban continued so long that Afghan democracy was no longer the issue. American democracy was.
The battle for democracy turned inward
The long conflict eroded confidence in the U.S. government, damaging the very republic that the United States was defending at the start.
Criticism came from the left, the right, and those who were not ideological at all. Some saw the war as a waste of American lives and treasure; others had little interest in America’s role in the wider world. Whether they were wrong or right, democracies do not function well when governments pursue unpopular policies.
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The damage has been evident for more than a decade, and three consecutive presidents have won elections while promising, figuratively and literally, to stop the bleeding.
Barack Obama was elected vowing to end seemingly endless wars—but was forced to return troops to Iraq. He sent extra troops to Afghanistan in hopes of ending the conflict there, but never completed an effort to bring them all home.
This became a campaign issue for Donald Trump, who won election in 2016 while promising to end overseas wars.
Joe Biden viewed Trump as an existential threat to democracy. And when Biden defeated Trump, he overturned many of Trump’s policies but notably kept Trump’s commitment to leave Afghanistan.
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Aside from its foreign policy implications, this appeared to be part of Biden’s broader effort to reinforce democracy at home.
Last December, Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan told NPR that Donald Trump rose, in part, because “we did not elevate and center middle-class concerns in our foreign policy and national security.”
“Foreign policy is domestic policy,” Sullivan added. U.S. security policy “has to connect to making the lives of working people better.”
Asked by my colleague Scott Detrow if American “overextension” played a role in the “erosion of trust” in the government, Sullivan replied: “We’ve got to turn the page on the forever wars.”
It highlighted the limits of democracy at war
It should not be a surprise that American democracy would function this way. When U.S. officials try to promote democracy in other countries, they often justify the trouble and expense by arguing that democracies are reluctant to go to war. Why would this be any less true of our own?
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Many presidents have had to balance America’s oversized role in world affairs against the reality that many Americans feel no stake in it. They have made a variety of choices.
When preparing to take office, Biden studied President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who worked to save American democracy during the Great Depression.
Biographer Robert Dallek says Roosevelt refused to take actions that were not broadly popular—and for that reason, he waited years to enter World War II, fearing American institutions could not take the strain. He acted only after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor united the country behind the war.
Biden was a young adult in the 1960’s when the United States made a different decision, sliding into the Vietnam War without deep public support. The failures of that long war contributed to a loss of trust in democratic institutions that endures today.
In the 1980’s Ronald Reagan mastered the art of warlike posturing (which is often popular) while avoiding lengthy conflicts involving U.S. troops (which would not have been). He supported wars through U.S. proxies in places like Nicaragua–but when hundreds of U.S. troops were killed during a mission in Lebanon, he withdrew the U.S. presence. Whatever the effects may have been on Lebanon, the move did not cost him at home: voters reelected him in a landslide afterward.
This summer Biden stepped away from America’s longest war, and the decision came with a grievous price: the fall of the Afghan government and peril to thousands of Afghans who worked for the United States. Millions who embraced Afghanistan’s flawed democratic opening now fear all doors will close.
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Defending the withdrawal on Saturday, Biden said Trump’s prior actions had left him no choice, but also made it clear that he was determined to go. He said he would not extend U.S. involvement in “another country’s civil conflict,” and said nothing of a democratic Afghanistan. He said the U.S. had already “invested nearly one trillion dollars” there. One trillion dollars happens to be the approximate dollar amount for an infrastructure bill the president is eager to sign for the United States, suggesting which priority the president considers more vital.
In a speech on Monday, Biden said that an extended mission “is not in our national security interest,” and then added: “This is not what the American people want.” That reality would be hard for a democratic leader to ignore.
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It is notable that Biden vowed to end the mission by the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks—a date with no military significance in Afghanistan but with political resonance at home.
That date will carry new meanings now that it’s clear that the Taliban will hold Kabul on September 11, 2021.
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