President George W. Bush delivered an address on Nov. 6, 2003, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the National Endowment for Democracy. In that speech, he expressed confidence that Afghanistan would become “a free and stable democracy.”
“With the steady leadership of President Karzai, the people of Afghanistan are building a modern and peaceful government,” Bush said.
“Next month, 500 delegates will convene a national assembly in Kabul to approve a new Afghan constitution,” he said. “The proposed draft would establish a bicameral parliament, set national elections next year, and recognize Afghanistan’s Muslim identity while protecting the rights of all citizens. Afghanistan faces continuing economic and security challenges. It will face those challenges as a free and stable democracy.”
When Bush delivered his second inaugural address, he described a U.S. foreign policy aimed at establishing freedom everywhere on Earth.
“The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands,” he said.
“So, it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world,” Bush said.
When Congress voted to authorize the president to use military force in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the authorization stated that its ultimate purpose was to protect the United States from future acts of terrorism — not create a democracy in Afghanistan.
It said that “the President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.”
Under this authorization, the United States swiftly removed the Taliban regime that had provided sanctuary to al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. A decade later (in 2011), U.S. special forces killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who was then hiding in Pakistan.
On Jan. 12, 2009, eight days before Bush left office, the “Freedom Agenda” page on his White House website featured a posting that described Afghanistan as “an emerging democracy.”
“President Bush helped establish an emerging democratic Afghan government and helped improve the lives of the Afghan people, especially women and children,” it said. “Thanks to the courage of the Afghan people and their international partners, a nation that was once a safe haven for al Qaeda is now an emerging democracy, and we are committed to its development and stability.”
Did the United States establish an enduring democracy in Afghanistan? No.
In 2019, Afghanistan held its last presidential election.
“The country held presidential elections in September 2019 after technical issues and security requirements compelled the Independent Election Commission to reschedule the election multiple times,” said the State Department’s 2020 report on human rights in Afghanistan.
“The commission announced preliminary election results on December 22, 2019, indicating that President Ashraf Ghani had won, although runner-up and then chief executive Abdullah Abdullah disputed the results, including after final results were announced February 18,” said the State Department.
“Both President Ghani and Abdullah declared victory and held competing swearing-in ceremonies on March 9,” said the report. “Political leaders mediated the resulting impasse, ultimately resulting in a compromise, announced on May 17, in which President Ghani retained the presidency, Abdullah was appointed to lead the High Council for National Reconciliation, and each of them would select one-half of the cabinet members.”
In August 2021, U.S. forces made their final withdrawal from Afghanistan — and President Ghani fled the country as the Taliban seized control of Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital.
As we approach the 22nd anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, how do things stand in Afghanistan?
The Taliban, the State Department said in its most recent report on human rights in Afghanistan, “said it intended to eliminate secular governance and claimed to govern in accordance with their own interpretation of sharia (Islamic law).
“The Taliban,” the report said, “took expansive measures to bar women and girls from participation in public and political life, including restricting their access to education at all levels beyond primary school, employment, and freedom of movement and dress.”
“Significant human rights issues,” the State Department said, “included credible reports of: arbitrary killings … degrading treatment by the Taliban,” and the “inability of citizens to change their government peacefully through free and fair elections.”
In August, the office of the inspector general for Operation Enduring Sentinel (OES) released its report for the second quarter of this year. This operation was started after U.S. forces withdrew from Afghanistan. “The objective of OES,” the inspector general’s report explains, “is to ensure that terrorist groups do not launch attacks against the United States from Afghanistan.”
The report indicated that two terrorist groups are now operating in Afghanistan: al-Qaeda, which is aligned with the Taliban, and ISIS-K, which is not.
“In early June,” said the report, “a UN monitoring team reported that the Taliban is providing sanctuary to al-Qaeda affiliates.”
“Al-Qaeda’s compliance with the Taliban’s directives not to conduct external terrorist operations,” it said, “has likely hindered the group’s recruitment and retention efforts.”
“According to the Defense Intelligence Agency,” the report said, “ISIS-K continued to carry out small-scale attacks against the Taliban while focusing on reorganization following the loss of experienced leadership personnel due to Taliban raids in March and April.”
“The intelligence community continues to assess that if ISIS-K prioritized an attack against the U.S. homeland, it would take the group 6 to 12 months to develop the capability to conduct such an attack,” the report said.
“The DIA reported that ISIS-K maintains its intent to direct or enable an attack against the U.S. homeland, but the DIA had no indication of a specific ISIS plot to attack the United States from Afghanistan,” it said.
The key strategic question for the United States in Afghanistan remains what it was 22 years ago. It is not whether we can transform that nation into a “free and stable democracy;” it is whether we can stop the terrorists based there from harming the American people.