Did the wars bring democracy to Afghanistan and Iraq?

The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq both resulted in the eviction of two of the world’s most repressive regimes, that of Saddam Hussein and that of the Taliban.  While bringing democracy to the two countries was not the initial rationale for either war (v. eliminating safe haven to terrorists and weapons of mass destruction), democracy promotion quickly became a stated goal for each. 

Ten years after the US-led invasion, the democracy that has emerged in Iraq is limited in significant ways.  Iraq has adopted what political scientists call a “minimal, procedural” form of democracy that is characterized by multiple elections and civil liberties unavailable under Saddam Hussein.  However, the Iraqi government has become increasingly authoritarian and is characterized by serious human rights violations and repression of journalists. Poverty, insecurity, a deteriorated social welfare system, and corruption effectively block citizens from meaningful democratic participation. 

Iraq has also exhibited a troubling trend towards sectarian conflict and violence, although historically sectarian identity has not been the sole or even the primary foundation for Iraqis’ political identities. Prime Minister al-Maliki has strengthened the role of sectarianism in Iraqi politics by reneging on promises to form a unity government with Allawi’s Iraqiyya bloc, the Kurdish parties and the Shi’a Sadrist movement, and by his Shi’a dominated government’s continued monopolization of power and sidelining of political opponents.

On a widely used evaluation and ranking of the quality of democracy across the world’s states, the “Democracy Index,” Iraq ranks poorly. Of the 165 countries ranked for 2011, Iraq is classified as a “hybrid regime” (between a “flawed democracy” and an “authoritarian regime”) and comes in at a ranking of 112. [1] In 2012, according to Transparency International, on a scale from 0 to 10, Iraq ranks 1.8 – and is among the eight most corrupt nations and territories in the world­ in corruption (defined as “abuse of entrusted power for private gain”).[2] Freedom House simply says: "Iraq is not an electoral democracy. Although it has conducted meaningful elections, political participation and decision-making in the country remain seriously impaired by sectarian and insurgent violence, widespread corruption, and the influence of foreign powers." [3] Freedom House also notes that hundreds of professors were killed and many fled the country during the height of the sectarian fighting, a blow to academic freedom; the judiciary's independence is threatened by political pressure, and sectarian violence continues to threaten religious freedom.

On the Democracy Index, Afghanistan is categorized as an authoritarian regime and ranks at 180 of 182. Afghanistan ranks 1.5 on the Transparency International corruption scale – the worst in South Asia.  Of the 182 countries assessed, the only countries lower ranked than Afghanistan are Somalia and Korea. [4]

Democracy promotion was in trouble in Afghanistan from the beginning, at the meeting which resulted in the December 2001 Bonn Agreement. The resuscitation of well-known warlords who had just been installed in their former fiefdoms for the primary purpose of helping the US prosecute the Global War on Terror was of great concern to Afghans.  Significantly, Bonn did not include groups concerned about the marginalization of women, human rights advocates, nor representatives of the victims of war and abuse.  A significant proportion of the Pashtun community, particularly those associated with the Taliban and rural norms, were not invited to Bonn and were, effectively, relegated to the margins of Afghan politics.

Whereas Afghans do want a say in how they are governed, as indicated in the 70 percent turnout in the 2004 elections, a growing number of citizens are less and less interested in the ineffective democracy that has been on offer.  By August 2009, impunity and corruption were more entrenched than before and Karzai’s western backers were still married to the notion that elections, however unconvincing to Afghans, were needed to sustain domestic support in ISAF troop-contributing countries. Elections, and Karzai’s bid to retain his Presidency, were marred by violence and well-documented, systematic fraud. [5] Turnout was low and polling day was the worst single 24-hour period of recorded violent incidents, including the deaths of 57 Afghans, since the overthrow of the Taliban regime. [6] The second round of parliamentary elections in 2010 fared no better in terms of being credible or acceptable to Afghan voters.  Little effort had been made to correct either the electoral system or the faults that had marred previous rounds of voting.

The widespread violence and corruption in Afghanistan has, ironically, boosted the image of the Taliban, which the Taliban have been able to exploit because of their reputation and approach to criminality. They ended the mayhem associated with their predecessors many of whom are Karzai’s allies who have reverted to their predatory practices.  The study commissioned by US General Stanley McChrystal in 2009 led to the conclusion that “widespread corruption and abuse of power exacerbate the popular crisis of confidence in the government and reinforce a culture of impunity.” [7] By contrast, the Taliban, according to the McChrystal study, have established ombudsmen “to investigate abuse of power in its own cadres and remove those found guilty.” [8]

Many Afghans believe they deserve a “Bonn II” that is free of external interference, embraces the full diversity of Afghan society, and is geared to the identification of genuine power sharing, peace-consolidation, and transparent state-building arrangements. (Text updated as of February 2013)


[1] Economic Intelligence Unit, 2011, Democracy Index 2011: democracy under stress, http://www.eiu.com/public/thankyou_download.aspx?activity=download&campaignid=DemocracyIndex2011, accessed March 10, 2013.

[2] http://www.iraq-businessnews.com/tag/transparency-international/

[3] http://www.freedomhouse.org/template.cfm?page=22&year=2011&country=8058

[4] http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/datablog/2011/dec/01/corruption-index-2011-transparency-international

[5] UNAMA-AIHRC Joint Monitoring of Political Rights, Presidential and Provincial Council Elections, Third Report, 1 August – 21 October, Kabul, October 2009

[6] Scott Worden “Afghanistan: An Election Gone Awry”, Journal of Democracy, Volume 21, Number 3, July 2010, page 18

[7]COMISAF Initial Assessment (Unclassified), Kabul, 30 August, 2009

[8] COMISAF Initial Assessment