What was defeated in Afghanistan was not just the most expensive and technologically advanced army in the world, but also two ideas that had deeply influenced the Western world. The first is that democracy can be exported, and the second is that the US military is the best in the world.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, one of the most popular and enduring policies in wealthy democratic countries has been to promote democracy in places where it doesn’t exist or where it’s precarious and dysfunctional. Unfortunately, diplomacy, money, technology and military interventions have not yielded very substantial and sustained results.
Sadly, in some cases, foreign intervention, rather than accelerating transitions to democracy, slows them down or derails them altogether
It turns out that transitions from dictatorship to democracy are more likely to succeed when brave and talented local political leaders play a leading role in convincing the people to protest, take to the streets and paralyze the country if necessary. Or, even better, when there are splits within the dictatorship and the military refuses to massacre and repress its own people.
At best, foreign support for democratic transitions has played a secondary role. Sadly, in some cases, foreign intervention, rather than accelerating transitions to democracy, slows them down or derails them altogether.
The export of democracy is not just an abstract idea, a moral obligation, or a political promise. It has also become an industry that moves huge sums of money. It is estimated that the United States, the European Union, Canada, Australia, the Scandinavian countries and others spend about $10 billion a year to support programs that seek to strengthen democracy around the world.
This immense amount of money is only a fraction of what the US has devoted to Afghanistan. In the past 20 years, and in that country alone, the US government spent $145 billion on “reconstruction” activities, which does not include, among others, the costs of the war. A Brown University study found that between 2001 and 2021 the US government spent a total of $2.2 trillion dollars on Afghanistan.
The case of Afghanistan illustrates – painfully – how two decades of multinational military intervention, broad global political support, hundreds of thousands of deaths, and unimaginable amounts of money were not enough to consolidate democracy.
The US withdrawal from Afghanistan also makes another long-held belief difficult to defend: that the United States has the most competent and powerful armed forces in the world. It is, without a doubt, the most technologically sophisticated army on the planet. And the most expensive. But that does not make it the most successful.
Spending massively and freely didn’t help to achieve the desired goal. In some cases, it distorted the effort and, ultimately, contributed to its failure
The contrast between a Taliban in sandals and a turban with an assault rifle slung over his shoulder, and a marine with a bulletproof vest, communication equipment, night-vision goggles, high-tech explosives, multiple weapons and support from drones, helicopter gunships, planes and satellites could not be more revealing. Equipping a single Taliban fighter likely costs a few hundred dollars. Outfitting a Marine costs $17,500, not counting the costs of air, cyber, and logistics support. That the Taliban were able to defeat this supremely well-armed and super-trained American force is a fact that will be studied for a long time in the world’s military academies.
It is interesting to note that the two ideas that were defeated in Kabul share a common factor: a lot of money often distributed in haphazard, wasteful and, at times, corrupt ways. Clearly, spending massively and freely didn’t help to achieve the desired goal. In some cases, it distorted the effort and, ultimately, contributed to its failure.
It is crucial that the right lessons be drawn from these defeats. It would be a mistake to conclude that the countries that are the bulwark of world democracy must give up their efforts to protect and fortify the weak democracies that we see proliferating today. The important thing is to understand which areas foreign aid can usefully address, and what form that aid should take. What is clear is that the way the West has been promoting democracy is not working.
The same goes for the US military. Of course, they must have the best available technology and their troops must have the best training and equipment. But does that really need to cost $740 billion per year? Should US military spending exceed the sum of all military spending of the next 11 top-spending countries combined? Aren’t these virtually unlimited budgets a source of strategic errors? Would the war in Afghanistan have lasted two decades if the military had faced real budget constraints? My answer to these four questions: No.