Stable democracy may be an elusive prospect in Afghanistan, but that in itself is no reason to stop talking about it. Although many Afghans might well prioritize security from violence over elections in the short term, voting rights are still widely valued across Afghanistan. This report examines the country’s recent history with elections, democracy, and democratic institutions, and argues that because democracy has a past in Afghanistan, there is good reason to continue to support it.

Workers stack ballot boxes at the Independent Election Commission’s warehouse in Kabul on September 29, 2019. (Rahmat Gul/AP)
Workers stack ballot boxes at the Independent Election Commission’s warehouse in Kabul on September 29, 2019. (Rahmat Gul/AP)

Summary

  • In 2021, a stable and democratic Afghanistan remains an elusive prospect due to the continued use and threat of violence by the Taliban and competing political actors, the executive stranglehold on government appointments, and international engagement focused solely on election days.
  • Even so, more flexible, lower-cost US engagement may yet produce results that can bolster democracy and encourage stability if incorporated into any forthcoming political settlement. 
  • Any system of governance in which the Taliban have a stake will need to include elections of some kind. The Afghan people have become accustomed to participating in the democratic process. Despite widespread electoral fraud, elections remain popular. 
  • Establishing local structures that facilitate stronger connections between citizens and their representatives will give legitimacy and stability to the political process going forward.
  • Allowing communities to decide how to select local leaders and conduct local elections could allow more cooperation between formal and informal systems of governance. This flexible approach could make elections more attractive to Taliban leaders.

About the Report

In early 2020, the US Congress asked the United States Institute of Peace to organize a study group to “consider the implications of a peace settlement, or the failure to reach a settlement, on U.S. policy, resources, and commitments in Afghanistan.” The full report of the Afghanistan Study Group was released in February 2021. This report is an updated version of a background paper prepared for the study group that analyzes Afghanistan’s experiences with democracy and elections since 2001.

About the Author

Anna Larson is a lecturer in political science at Tufts University and a research associate in the Department of Development Studies at SOAS, University of London. Since 2004, she has conducted research on democratization, elections, and gender in Afghanistan; formerly, she worked in Kabul for the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit. She has a PhD in postwar recovery from the University of York and is co-author of Derailing Democracy in Afghanistan.

Related Publications

Taliban Seek Recognition, But Offer Few Concessions to International Concerns

Taliban Seek Recognition, But Offer Few Concessions to International Concerns

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

By: Andrew Watkins; Ambassador Richard Olson; Asfandyar Mir, Ph.D.; Kate Bateman

Since taking power in August, the Taliban have repeatedly expressed the expectation that the international community will recognize their authority as the new government of Afghanistan and have taken several procedural steps to pursue recognition. But the group has done very little to demonstrate a willingness to meet the conditions put forward by Western powers and some regional states. USIP’s Andrew Watkins, Richard Olson, Asfandyar Mir and Kate Bateman assess the latest Taliban efforts to win international recognition, the position of Pakistan and other key regional players and options for U.S. policy to shape Taliban behavior and the engagement decisions of other international partners.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Global Policy; Reconciliation

China and the U.S. Exit from Afghanistan: Not a Zero-Sum Outcome

China and the U.S. Exit from Afghanistan: Not a Zero-Sum Outcome

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

By: Andrew Scobell, Ph.D.

It has become fashionable to characterize recent events in Afghanistan as a loss for the United States and a win for China. This zero-sum interpretation framed in the narrow context of U.S.-China relations is too simplistic and off the mark. The reality is far more complex and nuanced. The end of the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan and the collapse of that country’s pro-Western government do not automatically translate into significant Chinese gains, nor do they trigger a swift Beijing swoop to fill the vacuum in Kabul left by Washington.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Global Policy

What Does IS-K’s Resurgence Mean for Afghanistan and Beyond?

What Does IS-K’s Resurgence Mean for Afghanistan and Beyond?

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

By: Asfandyar Mir, Ph.D.

Last month’s bombing outside the Kabul airport was a devastating sign of the Islamic State of Khorasan Province’s (IS-K) recent resurgence. The group had already launched 77 attacks in the first four months of 2021 — an increase from 21 in the same period last year. This renewed capacity for mass-casualty attacks could further destabilize Afghanistan’s already precarious security situation, leaving both the new Taliban government and the United States with a vested interest in mounting an effective campaign to undercut IS-K’s presence in the region. 

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Violent Extremism

What Can the Taliban Learn From Past Afghan Conquests and Collapses?

What Can the Taliban Learn From Past Afghan Conquests and Collapses?

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

By: William Byrd, Ph.D.

The Taliban’s lightning conquest of Afghanistan caught many people by surprise, perhaps including the Taliban themselves. However, it is not the country’s first episode of an unexpectedly quick military victory and consequent rapid change in regime. Historical examples may provide relevant lessons for the victorious Taliban as they begin to govern the country, including pitfalls to be avoided in their own and the nation’s interest.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Fragility & Resilience

View All Publications