U.S. Air Force



Grading U.S. Democracy Promotion in Iraq and Afghanistan

“Afghanistan does not equal Iraq” was the first line David Petraeus wrote in a briefing for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld as he flew back from Iraq where he was overseeing the training of the Iraqi Security Forces in September 2005. Perhaps in the court of public opinion, by the judgment of an increasingly war-weary American public, these two bloodletting democracy promotion experiments may blur together, but Petraeus reminds us of crucial differences between Iraq and Afghanistan.

These include the existing government infrastructures, ethnosectarian makeup, and host-nation military forces at the time of the U.S.-led invasions in 2003 and 2001. Any evaluation of democracy and human rights that have stemmed from American interventions in two predominately Muslim countries must account for and be qualified by these differences.

The V-Dem Institute, headquartered at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, has produced the following datasets on religious freedom, political corruption, and women’s civil liberties in Iraq and Afghanistan– three dimensions of democracy that spotlight progressive stages of Iraq’s transformation from Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist rule to its religious coalition government today, and of the bloody conflict between Afghanistan’s central government and the Taliban insurgency.

Freedom of religion

Although attacks on religious freedom was an added justification for invading Iraq, and a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, a few key differences separated the two. In 2003, Iraq was majority Shia, with a sizable Sunni ruling political class, and a minority Kurdish concentration in the northeast, while Afghanistan was far more homogenous– approximately 90% Sunni Pashtun, with a small Shia minority.

Freedom of religion index. (V-Dem Institute)

While Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist Iraq certainly saw elements of government-sanctioned sectarian violence, which peaked during the Iran-Iraq war (notably in the 1982 Dujail Massacre– a series of mass killings of Shiites connected to an assassination attempt of Hussein, and the 1988 Anfal campaign, purportedly aimed at eliminating Kurdish rebel groups), the plateau on a weak -1.14 on the index of religious freedom above indicates decades-long stability, albeit an oppressive one, which cloaked sectarian divides, as crackdowns on political speech ultimately trumped the curtailing of religious expression.

Religious freedom in Afghanistan, by contrast, lagged much further behind at the time of the U.S. invasion. In the late 1990s, a Taliban-governed Afghanistan sported the unapologetic embrace of religious crackdowns under Sharia law– notably on the 9% Shia Hazara population, and an even smaller concentration of Hindus, Sikhs, and Christians. The U.S. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan raised religious freedom in both countries in the brief period that followed, raising Iraq’s by 1.4 index points and Afghanistan’s by 2.31.

However, in Iraq, the momentary respite from systemic religious oppression quickly took a turn for the worse as successive events, including the U.S. disbandment of the Iraqi army and intelligence services, and deadly Al Qaeda strikes on Shi’ite holy sites stoked sectarian resentment among Iraqis. A Sunni extremist strike on the Shi’ite shrine of Samarra in 2006 was the final straw that unleashed a wave of sectarian violence across the country that year which reached unprecedented levels (crashing to a -.57 that year) not seen since the height of Saddam’s rule.

Afghan National Army trainees
Afghan National Army trainees in Kabul, Afghanistan, March 5, 2020. (Jeffery J. Harris/Army)

By July 2013, with U.S. combat troops fully withdrawn, the Sunni insurgency intensified, with levels of violence matching those of 2008. While the V-Dem index shows the highest levels of fluctuation in sectarian instability post-2011 withdrawal, suggesting that occupation and stability are correlating, this conclusion, in isolation, can dangerously be viewed as the green flag for permanent U.S. Iraqi occupation, undercutting the multi-dimensional considerations of democracy promotion.

As a case study in failed nation building, the numerical conclusion can overshadow the impacts and responsibility of long-standing U.S. policy in Iraq (and beyond) pitting ethnic and tribal groups against each other, causing deep social rifts that flare up when social stability crumbles.

The Afghanistan case study in religious freedom drastically differs from Iraq in a few key regards, with the dominant difference being the destabilization of Afghanistan under Taliban rule at the time of the U.S. invasion. Following the U.S. invasion, the index sharply rose from -3.1 to -.79 but given the brutal religious repression under Taliban control– a system of governance far different from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, allotting a minimal, but existent religious tolerance– perhaps the increase in religious freedom is less surprising.

Political corruption

To look at endemic political corruption in Iraq and Afghanistan is to shed light on a peculiarity of U.S. foreign policy that achieves political stability using fiscally and democratically unsound means, ultimately creating deep structural failures in post-war state reconstruction. Rampant corruption in Afghanistan and Iraq was no secret to Washington, and if the swift fall of Kabul to the Taliban in August 2021 offers any lesson, it is that of the dangerous instability of corruption-ridden political institutions. The corruption of post-war Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade highlights a dominant failure in U.S. democracy promotion.

Political corruption index. (V-Dem Institute)

While Iraq may be the only procedural democracy in the Arab world, its big tent Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish government has openly lined its pockets while unemployment, food insecurity, and crumbling infrastructure run rampant. Since the U.S. invasion, sectarian conflict has mostly been kept at bay, but the increasingly corrupt and electorally-distant coalition government, formed by the “active behind the scenes” work of Washington and Tehran has persistently used patronage politics to guide policy.

As in the case of religious freedom, political corruption momentarily dropped by a tenth of a point in the subsequent period following the U.S. invasion (.79 to .69), but while the Bush administration pointed to signs of democracy and political progress with elections in 2005, the reversal of the de-Baathification policy in 2008, the landmark visit of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2008, the Anbar security handover in September of 2008, and the passing of provincial election laws by the Iraqi parliament later that month, corruption was on the rise, reaching and maintaining a pre-invasion .79 from 2006-2012.

What happened during these years that caused the seemingly simultaneous progression and regression of Iraqi democratic development? The answer lies in the heavy-handed approach of the United States, building a “convoluted multi-layered political system” and selecting the executive branch of the Iraqi government by a process of “undemocratic horse-trading.”

It echoed political control employed under British rule, with the U.S. government going so far as chartering flights for Iraqi exiles to join the post-Saddam political class, no doubt creating a massive disconnect between elected Iraqi officials and their electorate, one only growing more extreme by individual corruption of both Iraqi and U.S. officials with huge amounts of development funds stolen or embezzled by U.S. and Iraqi officials. This demonstrates, more broadly, that democracy achieved at the barrel of a gun or through a cash payment runs counter to democratic objectives.

Such is the case in Afghanistan as well, with well-documented cases of bribery (perhaps at its most extreme in the monthly bags of cash delivered to former President Hamid Karzai– “ghost money”– and anti-democratic warlords and Afghan militias across the country by the CIA), undermining democracy and stability ultimately fatally so.

Women civil liberties

Unlike the rather aligned phenomena of parallel rising political corruption in Iraq and Afghanistan, an examination of women’s rights in the two countries resulting from American presence presents a more complex comparison stemming from differing politically informed gender contexts that broadly led to inverse outcomes for women civil liberties in the two countries.

Women civil liberties index. (V-Dem Institute)

Among the surprising elements of Saddam Hussein’s rule was the explicit intention of advancing women’s political, civil, and economic status under the law, by passing a slew of legislation, such as a full year of maternity leave policy for women in government to achieve this end. This trend was seen in the V-dem index’s plateau at .36 from 1980-2002.

An important distinction that some critics make, however, notes the overriding political significance of some of these policies, directly tied, as argued, to bolstering the legitimacy of Hussein’s government, ultimately having a net destructive impact on women’s issues. Nonetheless, greater secularism before U.S.-occupation, especially in the pre-Gulf War years, allowed women to enjoy far more freedom than those living in post-invasion Iraq, due to two decades of sectarian meltdowns which have enforced conservative norms and disempowered women.

Rasha Khalid, a Baghdad-based lawyer highlights the tearing of the Iraqi social fabric has been coupled with legislative deficiency to address gender-based discrimination and abuse, with tribal power commonly exerting more influence than the rule of law. This declining civil rights arc is told numerically well, with women’s rights reaching staggeringly unprecedented record lows in 2014 and 2015 at .32 on the index. The remarkable deterioration of women’s rights on all fronts– civic, legal, political– under U.S. occupation speaks to the contradiction both between democracy promotion and human rights promotion, but in an Iraq-specific context, to the political nuances of human rights.

While U.S. democracy promotion accelerated deteriorating civil rights for women in Afghanistan, the Bush administration spotlighted women’s issues as an added justification for the war on terror, with Laura Bush condemning the “severe repression against women in Afghanistan” and declaring “the fight against terrorism is also a fight for the for the rights and dignity of women.”

While, indeed, in the years following U.S. intervention, women’s rights rose drastically, beginning at a low .03 in 2001, rising to .25 by the beginning of 2002, and maintaining a mostly upward trend, peaking at .39 in 2020, with female education improving, women joining the workforce and starting businesses, and gender-based violence being legislatively addressed, the framing of human rights promotion as a goal achieved through military intervention is significant.

The “foregrounding” of such a narrative– achieving human rights at the barrel of a gun– and the numerical evidence supporting said narrative has the potential, however, to be fundamentally flawed, with critical omissions, such as urban vs rural divergences, overshadowed to create a simple symbolism. Women’s rights in Iraq and Afghanistan teach us that in interventionist democracy promotion, women’s rights have been exploited by different groups for political gain, sometimes being improved but more often, abused.