Democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq


The 9/11 attacks proved beyond doubt that the breeding ground for terrorists and extremists often is a lack of democracy and space for dissent within the body polity. The fact that the 9/11 attacks were carried out by those who despise freedom and democracy and the benefits it brings to the majority of the world was amply clear. In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the Bush Jr. administration launched a “global war on terror” the aim of which was not only to strike at the roots of terrorism, but also to spread democracy and freedom to those parts of the world that did not have these political systems. Notably, Afghanistan and Iraq were chosen for military action against the extremists as the Bush Jr. Administration felt that the prevalence of autocratic and fundamentalist regimes in these countries were a fertile breeding ground for terrorists. Of course, the question as to which kind of democracy should these countries embrace is indeed pertinent as these countries never had democratic systems earlier and mostly they were backward and feudal autarchies.

This essay seeks to answer the question as to the kind of democracy that countries like Afghanistan and Iraq should have in view of history and political economy. The answer is provided after examining a wide variety of political science perspectives ranging from how to fix failed states to the ability of a country to sustain democracy (Ghani 2008).

Sustainability of Democracy

The first point to note is that democracy needs institutions and frameworks to sustain it and hence it cannot be imposed in a “vacuum”. The experiences of post colonial societies in South Asia (India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan along with Bangladesh) has shown that for democracy to take root, there needs to be a well functioning administrative and legal system so that laws and rules can be enforced. The case of Pakistan which lurches from disaster to disaster is particularly important as the absence of governance systems has led to frequent breakdowns in the way democracy is practiced. On the other hand, the experience of India has shown that no matter how flawed the democratic model functions there, there has not been a cessation of the democratic experiment (except once during 1975-’77) and that the prevalence of a well oiled administrative and legal system has ensured that democracy carries on. The reason for taking these examples is to point to the fact that the establishment of institutions and governance mechanisms ought to be the priority for the US and other Western powers before they can undertake a full-fledged movement towards establishing democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq (Fukuyama 2011).

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Regulatory Mechanism

The second point to note is that the variants of democracy like direct election or the Presidential System in vogue in the US or the indirect election that is the Westminster Model of democracy that is practiced in the UK and most of the postcolonial societies need adequate literacy and awareness from the voters who need to understand why they are voting for and what they are voting for. The experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq have shown that most often than not, elections are rigged and marred by violence that is sectarian and religious in nature. Hence, what is needed is the establishment of an effective regulatory mechanism by which the process of elections and democracy is monitored. These tie in with the previous points about the need for effective governance mechanisms and structures of administrative and legal systems that are a prerequisite for democracy. Hence, the US and the other Western powers should institute mechanisms to fix the failed states before they embark on democratic experiments in these countries (Fukuyama, Nation-Building: Beyond Afghanistan and Iraq).

Literacy and Free Press

The third important point is that for democracy to take root, there needs to be widespread literacy and a political awareness among the people. So, the organs through which this is spread like the media and a free press ought to be given importance when deciding on the kind of democracy that should be adopted in these countries. Considering the fact that these countries never had a free press in the first place, it becomes difficult for voters to judge fact from fiction and to participate in the electoral process in a meaningful manner. This leads us to the point that before democracy is implanted in these countries, establishing a free and fair press is mandatory. Hence, this forms the third prerequisite for democracy in these countries (Dobbins and Lal 2003).

To recap some of the points made so far, institutions or the pillars of democracy have to be established before countries like Afghanistan and Iraq become fully functional democracies. The four estates of the state which include the executive, judiciary, legislature and the media have to be nurtured and established before these countries can hope to become democratic. Hence, the US must take it upon itself to guide these countries into adopting the four pillars of democracy in a meaningful and orderly manner. Only when there are these institutions and frameworks can the US get down to serious nation building as it is attempting in Afghanistan and Iraq. The bottom line for nation building is that the nation must be ready to build itself with outside help and for the nation to be ready these prerequisites have to be put in place (Ghani 2008).

The first few years of the occupation by the US and NATO in Iraq and Afghanistan have produced mixed results because the countries were not ready to adapt to the democratic form of governance. This is especially the case with Afghanistan where the body polity had to be built from scratch and there was no way for democracy to take root given the history of the country which has always been in a state of chaos. Hence, well meaning efforts by the US and NATO failed to yield results initially though it appears now that some of these efforts are paying off. Similarly the situation in Iraq was anything but stable for the first few years of the US occupation since the country was caught in sectarian violence and religious strife. Despite all the efforts by the US led coalition to strengthen democracy, the efforts went in vain because the country and its people lacked the institutions necessary to incubate and sustain democracy (Coyne 2007).

The lesson for future nation builders is that one needs to go beyond rhetoric and instead get down to the difficult task of nation building which can take years before the efforts pay off. Hence, any presidential administration in the US has to commit itself to a deep involvement with these countries and sustain them in their efforts to spread democracy in these countries. The first steps in this regard have been taken though much needs to be done still before the results are evident. A positive indication is that the US and NATO have scaled down their armed combat role and instead have increased their diplomatic and consultants from the State Department whose primary role is to guide the political, economic and social elite in these countries to take steps towards establishing democratic systems of governance. In Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai has so far held his ground and not yielded to the extremist factions and it is hoped that the US and NATO would help him in transition to democracy. The point to note is that in both these countries, establishing democracy is a long term project and so there needs to be a “deep pockets” involvement and engagement with these countries. And the first step is to reduce the violence and strife that is often the case when states become failed states. (Dobbins and Lal 2003).


Before concluding the paper, it would be pertinent to note that democracy in the West did not come about suddenly and it took decades of untiring efforts for Universal Adult Suffrage to be adopted in the US and UK. Further, the principles and rules underpinning democracy were established and refined over a long period of time that continues to this day. Hence, this is something that the US and NATO must understand before they start serious efforts to build democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq (Nanji 2004). The kind of democracy that these countries require would need democratic systems to be put in place and hence this ought to be the first priority for nation builders from the US and Europe. One should pay heed to the dictum that those who forget history would be condemned to repeat it and hence a proper appreciation of the role of historical processes ought to be the guiding principle for those wishing to see Afghanistan and Iraq as democratic and free countries. In conclusion, the task of nation building takes time and effort and the first steps have been taken in the long and arduous journey towards democracy. It needs to be seen how successful would these efforts be in the coming years and months. It is certainly hoped that the seed of democracy and the spark of freedom that were lit by the US and NATO in these countries continues to spread and ignite others as well to adopt democracy (Fukuyama, The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution).

Works Cited

Coyne, Christopher J. After War: The Political Economy of Exporting Democracy. New York: Stanford University Press, 2007.

Dobbins, James and Rollie Lal. America’s Role in Nation-Building: From Germany to Iraq. New York : Rand Corporation, 2003.

Fukuyama, Francis. Nation-Building: Beyond Afghanistan and Iraq. New York: The John Hopkins University Press, 2005.

The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution. New York: Farrar, Straus and Girox, 2011.

Ghani, Ashraf. Fixing Failed States: A Framework for Rebuilding a Fractured World. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Nanji, Meena. Democracy in Afghanistan? 25 Feb 2004. 02 Mar 2012 <http://www.countercurrents.org/afghan-nanji250204.htm>.

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