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An approaching election demands reflection on our occupation of Afghanistan

The war in Afghanistan hasn’t made many headlines recently, those largely being dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the upcoming elections. But even though the drama of the Middle East may have lulled over the last year or so, it’s a conflict that should remain fresh in the mind of every American, especially with elections coming up in November. Having now lasted almost two decades, the conflict in Afghanistan has cost taxpayers $778 billion, as of Sept. 2019, and thousands of American lives. It’s hard to point to a single reason that a conflict against an enemy that is so underpowered, underfunded and under-equipped has been ongoing for so many years, but there is one reason that stands out from the rest: we tried to turn Afghanistan into America.

The conflict in Afghanistan, as well as other Middle Eastern nations, is referred to as a counterinsurgency. This refers to an engagement in which a regular, uniformed army tries to suppress, remove or eliminate an irregular, guerilla-type militia. In the case of Afghanistan, this largely refers to radical Islamist groups such as the Taliban and Al Qaeda. The United States has shown itself to be less than effective in these types of conflicts, Vietnam being the most famous example. Another example is Cambodia, the illegal war that spawned from the Vietnamese counterinsurgency fumbles in the 1970s. 

It isn’t a surprise that from president to president, the U.S. has stagnated in the rugged, mountainous terrain of Afghanistan. But there is one big reason that there have been so many obstacles in the liberation and rebuilding of Afghanistan. In 2004, the first democratic elections in the country in over 30 years took place. These elections were largely held to similar standards as elections in the U.S., especially since the U.S. made up the majority of the military forces in the area at the time. This was the beginning of a long fight for U.S. forces. The U.S.-led coalition saw fit to impose American political standards in a nation where only 63% of the citizens had a definition for democracy and almost 20% of men said they would not allow their wife to vote. In fact, the Institute for Policy Studies referred to the elections as a U.S. solution to U.S.-defined problems in Afghanistan. The quick move from an interim government effectively controlled by a nation that many Afghans saw as an invading force to a free and democratic election was a political shock to much of Afghanistan. Perhaps a more gradual move to a democratic system, such as a system of representatives with foreign oversight, would have been more effective.

With the nearly unlimited physical and intellectual might of a country like the U.S. at the wheel of the occupation of Afghanistan, one might think that the transition from war-ravaged state to rebuilding democracy would have been more streamlined, more efficient. But in the rush to claim a victory, presidents and generals have wasted 20 years of America’s time in a war that we are less and less likely to win. It’s a well-known fact by now that the occupation of a foreign nation to rebuild it to its former self is a major undertaking. It’s a less known fact, apparently, that to rebuild a nation in the image of another is infinitely more complex.

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