The South Asia Channel

How Long Should Afghanistan Matter?

The third-ever democratic presidential election in Afghanistan and its run-off takes place at a moment when a new form of conventional wisdom is congealing in the West. It concerns the rising pessimism about the U.S.-led intervention in Afghanistan. Skeptics assert that the loss of lives in the thousands, and that of taxpayers' dollars in the billions, was not worth it, if all that resulted was a corrupt, ineffectual, and predatory state apparatus in Afghanistan. While it is true that Afghanistan today is far from what the international community may have desired it to be - if ever there was a coherent plan in place - it is nonetheless naïve to dismiss the international engagement in Afghanistan as worthless, imperialistic, or a colonial enterprise.

The reality is quite the contrary. Afghanistan is not a war; it is a country. Afghanistan matters not just today; it will continue to resonate in the international community's collective consciousness for a long time to come. Progress in Afghanistan will influence other global interventions aimed at enabling state building in different contexts. Afghanistan is a telling depiction of the choices we make as a civilization to ensure our survival against our permanent ideological foes: violent extremism, terrorism, and totalitarianism. Three arguments illustrate why Afghanistan matters and will continue to do so.

First, Afghanistan represents one of the boldest experiments in contemporary international affairs of the collective will of global community. It is an embodiment of global aspirations for a stable world that is dictated by reason and forged on the basis of shared democratic norms. Among other contemporary cases of international engagement aimed at supporting state building, Afghanistan stands out. The sheer duration and scale of involvement of nation states as well as the number of transnational actors committed to it make Afghanistan a truly unique case. Starting October 7, the international engagement in Afghanistan is approximately 12 years and seven months long. The war in Iraq, in comparison, lasted for eight years and nine months.  During the international engagement in Afghanistan, and especially after 2009, Afghanistan became the world's leading recipient of international aid and hosted the world's largest international peace keeping force mandated by the United Nations. Forty-eight nation states contributed troops to the Afghan mission. In 2005, about 2400 NGOs operated in Afghanistan in parallel with the Afghan government, international peacekeeping forces and the United Nations. This is an historic engagement; its significance cannot be overstated. The implications of Afghanistan's success or failure would affect not only the credibility of international interventions per se, but also the legitimacy of external actors seeking to facilitate state formation in the developing world.

Second, skeptics point out that democracy would not work in Afghanistan, that the Afghans are illiterate and would submit to a theocracy, and that kinship affiliations trump Afghans' idea of the state. If any of this were true, consider this: over seven million Afghans, about 60 percent of the eligible voters, went to the polls on April 5 to elect their next President. In doing so, the Afghans defied naysayers, confronted their illusions about the alternatives to democracy, and braved violence, threats, and intimidation from the Taliban. This is an awe-inspiring achievement that occasions celebration, not cynicism. The Afghans have defined their determination not to abandon the fight and have chosen a democratic process over its authoritarian alternative. Whether the Afghans' support for democracy is on account of ideology, tradition, or common sense, it is in our interest to reinforce and institutionalize such support.

And, third, defining the U.S.-led engagement in Afghanistan or assessing its merits entails more than merely looking at the efficiency of the Afghan state and the workings of the international community there. There are more fundamental issues at stake. Central to our engagement in Afghanistan is our view of civilization, order, and the values that underscore both. If we want the world to be more democratic, not less; more open, secure, stable, tolerant, pluralistic and integrated, then our engagement in Afghanistan is an expression of a choice and a commitment on our part. It is about enabling the Afghans to define the character of the Afghan state, its notion of citizenry, and its idea of progress.

Far reaching political change is rarely, if ever, foreseeable. We may not be able to foretell how progress in Afghanistan will unfold. It is, however, in our interest, as it is in the interest of the Afghans, to ensure the success of this partnership.

My Afghan friends would agree that the international community could have done more and better with its engagement in Afghanistan during the last 12 years. For a start, we could have prevented any faction, regionally and domestically, from dominating the Bonn agenda -- a series of agreements that enabled provisional reestablishment of the Afghan government in 2001. Without a doubt, if we had addressed the Pakistani military's support for the insurgency, we would have a more stable Afghanistan today. Perhaps, we could have avoided the temptation to over-centralize the appearance and the working of the Afghan state. The distraction of Iraq notwithstanding, Afghanistan would be better off today if we had expanded the provision of security as a public good across the country before 2003. We could also have also invested the aid money more efficiently and addressed corruption in contracting, as well as in the Afghan Government, head on. The list goes on.

Hindsight is a luxury that offers us an opportunity today to deliberate on these shortcomings, missed opportunities, and unintended and intended consequences of our engagement. This is not a bad situation to be in now, in 2014. What could have been infinitely worse is if we had to contemplate how to prevent the Taliban from relegating the Afghan women to mere objects. Or, if we had to prevent the wholesale social and psychological mutilation of the Afghan society by the Taliban's theocratic absolutism -- or, worse, if we had to prevent the flagrant degradation of basic human rights and oppression of minorities across Afghanistan. Likewise, we would be infinitely worse off today if we had to prevent an entire society from being held hostage to superstition and credulity instead of reason.

It is no small achievement that we re-enabled the formation of the Afghan state and rescued its citizens from the sole ownership of a barbaric regime. Our engagement has created a platform for Afghans and for us to unflinchingly confront the draconian ideologies that are incompatible with our worldview. The Afghans have just reinstated their confidence in democratic transfer of power to address their challenges in a context that appears anything but inviting for democracy. Dismissing this progress is an affront to modern sensibility. The US-led engagement in Afghanistan is a fight against, not for, imperialism and colonialism. The only criticism that the international community deserves on Afghanistan is when it wavers in this partnership. Whether or not this partnership endures tomorrow, the challenges that brought together the international community in Afghanistan are far from over.

Thus, to answer the question: "How long should Afghanistan matter?" a fitting answer would be: "How long-term is the international community, led by the United States, prepared to think?" As the Afghans go to the polls on June 14 for the run-off to stamp their preferences on their future, we would be wise to have an answer.

Prakhar Sharma is a second year PhD student in Political Science at Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs and a contributing editor to the Fair Observer. He has worked in Afghanistan since 2006, leading research programs in three local institutions. He was a post-graduate associate at Yale University and consultant to the World Bank, the American University of Afghanistan, and the UNICEF.