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.

Afghanistan. On the “Democracy Index,” a widely used evaluation of the quality of democracy across the world’s states, Afghanistan is categorized as an authoritarian regime and ranks at 152 of 167 countries reviewed in 2012. In 2013, Afghanistan, together with Somalia and North Korea, shared the worst ranking in a review of corruption in 177 countries.

The Bonn Agreement, signed by a select group of Afghan strongmen and US allies in December 2001, established the blueprint for a post-Taliban Afghanistan. The agreement did not include human rights advocates, groups concerned about the marginalization of women, or representatives of victims of war and abuse. Many Afghans were concerned that Bonn restored to power well-known warlords with the primary purpose of helping the US to prosecute the Global War on Terror. The Interim Administration of Hamid Karzai that took office at the end of December 2001 had little capacity to counter a surge in human rights violations.

The Bonn process resulted in a winner-takes-all electoral system that was antagonistic to inclusive and representative governance.

Political culture in Afghanistan has been characterized by widespread violence and corruption, which has, ironically, boosted the image of the Taliban. A 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.”

Afghans do want a say in how they are governed, as indicated in the 60 percent turnout in the 2014 elections. Yet, while the media has touted these elections as an indicator of Afghanistan’s democratic maturity, they were marred by credible allegations of systemic fraud by campaign staff of both presidential contenders, including claims of manipulation and interference by government officials and ballot box stuffing, among other problems.

United States leaders ended up brokering a deal with the Afghan government to determine President Karzai’s successor.  At the end of 2014, Afghans are facing the problems inherent in a legacy of fraud-scarred elections that have strained relations between various ethnic groups. The new “government of national unity” will have to deal with a state characterized by poorly functioning institutions and rising levels of warfare and insecurity exacerbated by widespread lawlessness. It will also be confronted with devastating levels of poverty and deprivation coupled with a great deal of anxiety about the future.

In many respects, Afghans are now faced with more troubled and limited prospects for shaping their future in a collective fashion than they had at the end of 2001.

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.

Iraq. Eleven 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 some 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. The capture of significant parts of the country by the Islamic State in 2014 has also exacerbated sectarian conflict and violence. Historically, sectarian identity had not been the sole or even the primary foundation for Iraqis’ political identities. Prime Minister al-Maliki 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.  He resigned under pressure in the wake if the ISIS invasion in 2014.

On the Democracy Index, Iraq ranks poorly. Of the 167 countries ranked for 2013, Iraq was classified as a “hybrid regime” (between a “flawed democracy” and an “authoritarian regime”) and came in at a ranking of 113. In 2013, according to Transparency International, Iraq ranked among the eight most corrupt nations and territories in the world­ (with corruption defined as “abuse of entrusted power for private gain”). 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." Freedom House has also noted 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. (Text updated as of October 2014)


[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