Columbia International Affairs Online: Working Papers

CIAO DATE: 02/2015

Democratic Aspirations and Destabilizing Outcomes in Afghanistan

Norah Niland

November 2014

Watson Institute for International Studies, Brown University


The United States and its allies, in control of Afghanistan since October 2001, failed to support the development of an inclusive, legitimate and accountable political system. This paper examines how the imposition of an inappropriate model of democracy, the prioritization of American interests over those of Afghans, and a pattern of expedient political decisions have contributed to the destabilization of the country. The democracy and state-building model imposed on Afghanistan was stymied from the outset by critical foundational flaws. These include the return to power of discredited warlords reviled by most Afghans, the marginalization of particular groups including the remnants of the Taliban movement, and the concentration of power in an executive Presidency at the expense of a weak parliamentary structure. In 2014, along with the drawdown of US and NATO troops, Afghanistan’s disputed election saga ended in a no-victor deal that effectively discarded the (as yet unknown) results of the ballot box. Once again, Washington politics reinforced the grip of a warlord-dominated elite on the machinery of the state and exposed the hollowness of the US-led and UN-supported state building project.