09/24/2010 06:14 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

War Does Not Promote Democracy

A commitment to political equality does not have to end at the United States border. Advocates of political egalitarianism can and should support those who work to achieve decision-making systems that allow and encourage equality. The real problem is not whether we should do so. The greater difficulty is to figure out how.

At present this problem most vividly presents itself in the intense struggle that is underway in Afghanistan in one of the great religions of the world, Islam. It is important to side with Muslims who seek to reconcile their faith with the rights of women as well as men to shape their own lives. There is no reason not to identify with those within the religion who oppose violence and seek to establish Islamic institutions that reconcile democratic values with the validity of traditionalism. What obviously is far less clear is how to assist them.

Equality is a universally accepted norm and like-minded egalitarians have every reason to provide mutual support. But the risks involved are only too clear. On one hand outsiders may choose the wrong way to provide assistance and in the process subvert their own efforts. On the other hand being excessively deferential to nationalist sensibilities and thus refraining from providing assistance unnecessarily weakens the forces of democracy.

There is a long history to this problem. Democrats and socialists for years struggled with how best to oppose authoritarian communism. And the same was true with regard to apartheid in South Africa. The dilemmas that we face today were encountered in those confrontations as well. The fact that we can talk about both communism and apartheid as historical relics suggests that there are relevant lessons to be learned from those experiences as today we confront violent fundamentalists.

Two inter-related lessons in particular are pertinent. First, success or failure is not determined by those on the outside. Whatever assistance is provided can only be effective to the extent that domestic organizations promoting democracy are strong and competent. There was a role for outsiders to provide support for dissidents, but the Soviet Union's authoritarianism was dismantled only after the reforming ascendency of Mikhail Gorbachev and his associates. Similarly in South Africa it was the strength and tenacity of the African National Congress party that ultimately broke the back of racial separation. Reformers in both countries were in contact with activists in the West and benefitted from those contacts. But it was internal reformers who were the principle agents of the changes that were secured. Outsiders played a role, but it was subordinate. Similarly, we cannot be the prime agent in shaping Afghan society and the content of its religious practices.

Second, warfare does not work. In Afghanistan there is every reason to believe that its consequences will be perverse. Of course we oppose the Taliban's misogyny and its according religious figures virtually unchecked authority. But because of the nature of the United States' opposition - the use of warfare and violence - religious extremism has gained there at the expense of liberal political values.

Evidence that this is so was provided in a paper written by Luke N. Congra, Joseph H. Halter, Radha K. Iyengar and Jacob N. Shapiro and published in July 2010 by the National Bureau of Economic Research. Put briefly, the rigorous econometric analysis undertaken by these four scholars led them to conclude that "to the extent that counterinsurgent forces engage in unpopular and aggressive operations that generate specific local grievances, they are likely to facilitate increased recruitment and support for insurgent groups." (1) America's war strategy strengthens our opponents.

But it is not only that we are creating enemies. The use of the military is also making it more difficult for Afghani liberals to gain ground politically. War always involves the tragedy of civilian causalities. And grieving families who assign responsibility for the deaths of their loved-ones to outsiders are not likely to respond positively to the political values of those outsiders.

There are groups in Afghanistan that oppose violence and religious intolerance. As was the case in the Soviet Union and South Africa, they are the ones who will have to carry the day if liberal values are to become ascendant. The tragedy is that the war acts to weaken them, even as its violence adds to the strength of the Taliban.

The war in Afghanistan is an action that advocates of political equality should oppose.

(1) Luke N. Congra, Joseph H. Felter, Radha K. Iyengar and Jacob N. Shapiro, The Effect of Civilian Casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq (NBER Working Paper Series, Working Paper 16152: July 2010), p. 30