THE BLOG
10/21/2014 03:32 pm ET Updated Dec 21, 2014

Afghanistan Déjà Vu?

As Afghans put their long election saga behind them and evaluate their new two-headed government, the US hopes to end the long war, and draw down to about 10,000 troops. How has the democratization effort fared?

The former director of UN Human Rights in Afghanistan, Norah Niland, says the US led democratization program has not succeeded. Indeed, she argues, in many respects, the situation is worse than at the end of 2001.

In a new analysis for the Costs of War Project, based at Brown University, Niland finds that Afghans widely regard the election process as flawed and the results as less an expression of the choice of the people than a back room compromise brokered by Washington.

This continues a pattern, begun in late 2001 with the Bonn Agreement, where the US and its allies determined, rather undemocratically, who would lead Afghanistan and how Afghan institutions would be structured. In the process, Niland argues, the US supported what she calls a "predatory warlord elite" who have a long history of abusing power. Most independent observers rank Afghanistan as one of the most corrupt countries in the world.

Will things be bettor or worse when the US draws down its forces?

It strikes me that we have seen this scenario before, in Iraq, albeit with some differences. Yes, 9,800 troops will remain in Afghanistan, while US forces largely left Iraq in 2011.

What looks familiar is the shallow program of US backed democratization, one that actually abetted the concentration of power in illegitimate leaders and does not support the development of accountable local institutions.

The US has invested in the reconstruction of Afghanistan's war devastated infrastructure. The US has allocated some $100 billion for to rebuild Afghanistan; in Iraq the US spent about $65 billion. Sadly, as in Iraq, while there have been some successes, a high level of waste and corruption characterizes Afghanistan's reconstruction.

Further, while spending on security is high, much higher than for spending on domestic needs, such as education and health, as Niland underscores, many Afghans have yet to experience real and durable security. While Afghans want democracy and economic opportunity, freedom from violence remains their most critical and unmet priority.

Also familiar is the high degree of political and military instability in Afghanistan's neighborhood. Years of drone strikes in Pakistan have not eliminated the threat from the Taliban, al Qaeda or the Haqqani network. Indeed, the drone strikes have arguably increased resentment in the region, while killing relatively few militant leaders. Each civilian killed, in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, increases support for militants.

After more than 13 years, the US has spent nearly as much on the war in Afghanistan as it did on the war in Iraq. The US Congress allocated more than $700 billion for the Department of Defense and State Department to rid Afghanistan of terrorism and to promote democracy, human rights, and a functioning economy.

The direct and indirect costs in blood and treasure in Afghanistan and for the US, not to mention for the United States' NATO allies and Pakistan, have also been high. Even as fighting in Afghanistan winds down as winter sets in, the United Nations has found that 2014 has been one of the more intense periods of war in Afghanistan.

All told, about 24,000 Afghan civilians, 15,000 Afghan security forces (army and police), more than 2,300 US soldiers, and more than 1,000 US allies have been killed directly in the war. This is not even to mention the thousands wounded in combat and the tens of thousands who died as a result of the accumulated effects of the war on essential services. More than 2.5 million Afghans are refuges in neighboring countries and hundreds of thousands of Afghans remain internally displaced and vulnerable.

While all eyes are on Iraq and Syria, Afghanistan marches to a new future with fewer US boots on the ground. Niland, who has many years of experience working for the UN in Afghanistan and elsewhere, expects a short honeymoon and increased violence after the US departs. War is likely to persist and intensify.

In any case, Niland argues, Afghanistan will continue to need outside support to bolster its health care system and other essential services. More fundamentally, Afghans need to build the institutional machinery critical for democratic governance.

If we are to learn anything from the attempt to remake Iraq and promote democracy through methods that emphasize brute force, more war is not the answer for Afghanistan. It is time to put US intellectual and material resources into developing another way.