Since the mid-2000s, the Americans themselves have begun to admit that the strategy of democratisation both in Iraq and in Afghanistan had turned out to be wrong and did not bring results. Systematically, the Americans failed, because they were not able to build trusting relationships with a society that they did not respect, considering it underdeveloped, archaic, chaotic, and completely undemocratic, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Andrey Sushentsov.
On the eve of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the United States was at the peak of its power and military dominance in the world. This affected the attitude of the American public and elites and, probably, became a key factor that pushed them to seek an opportunity to demonstrate to the world that the United States is capable of solving any problem on its own. As former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said in response to the Allies’ offer to help the United States in 2001, the Americans can go alone.
Initially, the American campaign in Afghanistan focused on dismantling the network of terrorist field camps run by al-Qaeda (banned in Russia by court order). Since then, al-Qaeda has indeed significantly reduced its capabilities; now it is unable to carry out transcontinental terrorist acts. The organisation became at first regional, and then completely local.
Comparable success in the fight against the Taliban, or rather the relative ease with which they disappeared among the civilian population of Afghanistan, caused false expectations in Washington about what was possible in the Middle East. Already in December 2001, the White House leadership came up with the idea of an invasion of Iraq, and the George W. Bush administration began discussing scenarios for a military campaign.
Their zeal increased as the project took form: the goal of democratising the Greater Middle East was speculative only for the rational, sober-minded American military and some politicians. However, the general mood of the American establishment stated that now the “time of freedom” had come and democratisation would inevitably affect all corners of the world which it has not yet reached. Both Republicans and Democrats suffered from this cognitive distortion in the 2000s. They failed to carry out a historical experiment to accelerate time and to establish modern European institutions in Afghanistan which would contribute to the reproduction in society of the relations that we now call “Western democracy”. Afghanistan has proved to be very tenacious in its own “democratic” mechanisms — the deep decentralisation of political processes, as well as the large role played by tribal elders, as well as informal and shadow leaders.
In turn, the Iraqi political system that existed in the country before the American invasion relied on the Sunni Arab minority, which formed the backbone of the Ba’ath Party. The removal of this party from power resulted in the persecution of the Sunnis by Shiite groups and stimulated the outbreak of civil war in the country. As a result of the breakdown of the previous power hierarchy — the removal of the Sunnis from power, the abolition of the Ba’ath Party — hotbeds of extremism and a ramified terrorist underground have emerged in Iraq. Thus, in Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States has achieved the exact opposite of what it had envisioned as the targets of its military interventions in 2001-2003.
Since the mid-2000s, the Americans themselves have begun to admit that the strategy of democratisation both in Iraq and in Afghanistan had turned out to be wrong and did not bring results. Systematically, the Americans failed, because they were not able to build trusting relationships with a society that they did not respect, considering it underdeveloped, archaic, chaotic, and completely undemocratic.
In this regard, comparisons of the process of the withdrawal of American and Soviet troops from Afghanistan are relevant. The measure of mutual trust that was between the Soviet and Afghan soldiers, or the measure of mutual understanding between the adversaries — the Soviet troops and the Mujahedeen — was unattainable during the American occupation of the country.
We wrote about this with my co-author Nikita Neklyudov in the Quaestio Rossica journal, where we reviewed the American experience studying the Soviet conflict in Afghanistan: how the Americans view the participation of the USSR in the conflict in that country, and what conclusion they drew for themselves from this. In the American professional community of political scientists, the greatest bewilderment was caused by the ability of Soviet leaders to recreate the power hierarchy in place, relying on their former opponents, the Afghan mujahedeen. From the point of view of American discourse, the Soviet approach to engage a former enemy in cooperation, based on a combination of forceful pressure and a system of compromises, is not a post-conflict settlement. In our opinion, this simply reflects common sense and an interest in the political culture of the environment in which you find yourself. The ability to ask realistic questions: “How are power relations arranged here? Who really runs this settlement? This young party functionary elected by the Council of Deputies, or that elder who silently sits and watches what is happening?” Developing this kind of analysis, and then relations, of course, allowed the Soviet Union to achieve substantially more than the Americans, who were completely unaccustomed to this kind of thinking, and therefore the Soviet experience in Afghanistan turned out to be useless for the US.The current development of the situation in Libya, in parts of Syria and Somalia, and in certain African regions leaves considerable scope for the terrorist underground. Of course, systems for combating terrorist camps are developing, including remote ones — missiles, unmanned aerial vehicles — which allow one to strike without carrying out a military invasion of the country. But in essence, one cannot say that the fight against terrorism is close to completion. As long as sharp religious contradictions remain in the Middle East, terrorism will definitely remain on the political agenda. At the moment, when the previous regime is scrapped, as in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, a vacuum arises in which terrorist networks can become active.