The Afghanistan debacle should remind the US and India that democracies have yet to formulate a successful strategy to meet the challenge of the most virulent form of authoritarianism,

President Joe Biden is attempting to place democratic values once again at the centre of US foreign policy. This should be good for US-India relations since common democratic values have long underlain the relationship. In order to promote democratic values, President Biden is to host a virtual summit of leaders from the world’s democracies on 9-10 December this year. The meeting is to be organized around three themes: (1) defending against authoritarianism, (2) addressing and fighting corruption, and (3) advancing respect for human rights.
Since the announcement of the summit, a gigantic change in circumstances has taken place, namely the calamitous withdrawal of the United States from Afghanistan, the takeover of the country by the authoritarian Taliban, and further atrocities by authoritarian terrorists.
This change in circumstances has laid bare a failure of the US and its democratic allies to accomplish, over a period of 20 years and at the cost of some $2 trillion and many thousands of lives, the very goals that the summit is designed to promote. This failure directly affects the interests of both India and the US and requires a re-evaluation of the purpose and conduct of the summit. In regard to foreign policy, the summit was first conceived largely as a sort of counterweight to the international attractiveness of the authoritarian Chinese model. This approach united common foreign policy interests of India and the United States, since they both face Chinese threats. The Afghanistan debacle emphasizes that the issue of authoritarianism versus democracy is much broader than the Chinese model versus the American model.
The Afghanistan debacle should remind the US and India that democracies have yet to formulate a successful strategy to meet the challenge of the most virulent form of authoritarianism, radical Islamic terrorism. For India, particularly, this sort of challenge may be of more immediate concern than the Chinese authoritarianism since it must live in proximity to the rising threat of Islamic radical authoritarianism throughout South Asia. Even if the United States is willing to move on from this challenge, India cannot. An enduring partnership between the US and India requires that the continuing threat from this brand of authoritarianism must be faced squarely and thoughtfully. This work should be an integral part of the Summit for Democracy lest the summit be but a hollow exercise.
Faced with a choice of fighting an ideologically motivated enemy or surrendering, most of the leaders and soldiers of the Afghanistan republic chose to lay down their arms. Those who could, fled, some taking large sums of money with them. To these who gave up without a fight, American slogans such as “give me liberty or give me death” and “live free or die” meant nothing. By contrast, authoritarian Taliban proved time and time again their willingness to fight and die for their perverted view of Islam. This stubborn fact has implications not just for democracies struggling with radical Islamic terrorism, but for their confrontations with ideologically motivated authoritarianism generally. The United States’ previous famous failure against the ideologically motivated Viet Cong is a case in point. How do great democracies like the United States and India come to grips with the fact of anti-democratic ideological motivation? Approaches to solving this riddle should be built around the stated themes of the Summit for Democracy.
The first of these is “defending against authoritarianism”. The key concept of “defending” requires a reconsideration of the role of force in the faceoff between democracy and authoritarianism. A strong military defense is imperative, but surely the Afghanistan experience, like those in Iraq and Vietnam, shows the limits of using war to confront authoritarianism. In Afghanistan, the concept of defending against authoritarianism quickly morphed into spreading democracy by war. This simply does not work. It is once again necessary for democracies to re-evaluate how force is used to combat an ideologically motivated authoritarian foe. The US and India should be major partners in working out new strategies based on a combination of carrots and sticks. The US and India need to cooperate more closely in making the so-called “over the horizon” capabilities work against authoritarians such as those faced in Afghanistan.
The disastrous experience for democracies involved in Afghanistan shows the importance of “addressing and fighting corruption”. The putative Afghan partners of the United States were corrupt from the start. Indeed, a large portion of the appeal of the Taliban, when they first came to power in the 1990s and again this time, is their perceived ability to replace a corrupt Afghan government with a more honest one. Of the trillion dollars spent by the United States at least a billion was provably stolen outright. Other billions were siphoned off in various schemes. When push came to shove, Afghan leaders fled the country, taking US funds with them. The common man and woman will not support a government that thrives on corruption, much less lay down their lives for it. Democracies like the United States and India are no strangers to corruption. However, to maintain their legitimacy, democracies must not only subscribe to an anti-corruption ethos but implement mechanisms to fight corruption at home and abroad. This can be a crucial area for cooperation among democracies that use market driven solutions to increase prosperity for all their citizens. Neither governments nor markets will work if decisions are based on corruption.
At its core, “advancing respect for human rights” requires a rule of law that enforces protections for the rights of all people. Americans and Indians pride ourselves on our systems for advancing human rights. Yet both countries fall short of the human rights principles upon which they were founded. The US and India can make greater legal contributions to the protection of the rights of women and minorities. But legal actions are not nearly enough to advance adequately a respect for human rights. The upcoming Summit of Democracies is to include leaders of civil society, philanthropy, and the private sector, as well as heads of state. Each of these segments has a role to play in advancing respect for human rights. Their non-governmental undertakings have the advantage in many cases of not requiring legislative action, which is often difficult to achieve. Through advocacy, private funding, and company policies, fundamental human rights can be strengthened in ways that make democracies stronger and more attractive to those under the oppression of authoritarian regimes. This, in turn, strengthens democracies’ defence against authoritarianism.
The White House announcement of the summit contemplates a second meeting in a year’s time. The purpose of this meeting is “to take stock of the progress made and forge a common path ahead”. Evidently, it is contemplated that participants will make “commitments” at the first meeting and that progress toward these commitments will be assessed at the second meeting. There is a hope that participants will find sufficient commonality to provide an ongoing program built around each of the summit’s themes. The approach seems not unlike the “nationally determined contributions” structure of the Paris climate change agreement. This will only work if commitments are sufficiently detailed and realistic in the face of the Afghanistan experience. This will require leadership from the US and India.
In the face of the Afghanistan debacle, the United States and President Biden have diminished standing to provide the leadership necessary to make the summit meaningful. Some argue that the whole exercise should be scrapped. The analysis presented above argues that a Summit for Democracy is needed now more than ever. The United States cannot and should not provide this leadership alone. Now is the time for the world’s two largest democracies to cooperate on using lessons from the Afghanistan experience to make the summit a useful tool in defending democracy, fighting corruption, and advancing human rights.
Raymond E. Vickery, Jr. is Senior Associate, Wadhwani Chair, Center for Strategi and International Studies; Senior Advisor, Albright Stonebridge Group; Former US Assistant Secretary of Commerce.