Saturday, September 4, 2021

Musings on How Religion and Culture Caused the Afghanistan Debacle

      By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

The Afghanistan Army was trained and supplied by the U.S. and supposedly motivated to fight for democracy and human rights against an oppressive Taliban.  But the Afghan army dissolved in the face of a Taliban offensive.  It abandoned its fight for libertarian democracy and women’s rights to maintain the oppressive cultural values of a patriarchal Islamist culture.

It was another painful lesson in legitimacy for America.  Overwhelming American military power cannot change the religious and cultural norms that shape the standards of legitimacy.  The Afghanistan army was never motivated to replace Islamist standards of legitimacy with libertarian values.  It forfeited the battle for the hearts and minds of Afghans to the Taliban.

Americans should understand that.  It took 150 years for women to gain the right to vote in America, and Christian morality continues to shape our standards of political legitimacy.  It’s little wonder that the Afghanistan army supported Islamist values that preserved their male dominance, and were not willing to fight and die for conflicting Western libertarian values.  

Promoting democracy and human rights is a laudable strategic objective, but American national security policy must accept cultural realities.  For American trainers and advisors to  promote libertarian values in Islamist cultures can be a mission impossible when it’s a mission imperative to maintain a close working relationship with their indigenous counterparts.

Peaceful persuasion is a better approach than coercion for promoting democracy and human rights in Islamist cultures.  With Islam expected to supersede Christianity as the world’s largest religion by 2070, increasing religious and cultural diversity makes peaceful persuasion preferential to coercion for reconciling conflicting religious and cultural values.

The reconciliation of Islamist regimes and Western libertarian democracies requires that they find common ground on their values with advances in knowledge and reason.  That can begin with the greatest commandment to love God and our neighbors of other races and religions as we love ourselves.  It’s a common word of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims.

When those of contentious religions become neighbors in pluralistic cultures, the fundamental freedoms of religion, speech and equal rights for women are essential for peaceful coexistence.  When Muslims embrace human rights as a matter of faith and politics, oppressive forms of Islamism lose their legitimacy, and Muslims can share those fundamental freedoms.

For America to successfully promote democracy and human rights overseas depends on its powers of persuasion rather than military coercion.  America should have learned that lesson in legitimacy in Vietnam, but its military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan were painful reminders of how religion and culture can trump overwhelming military force.


A US bombing raid in Afghanistan that targeted a suspected ISIS-K bomber reportedly killed ten civilians, including children.  It illustrates how the collateral damage from the excessive use of military force can disparage American efforts to promote democracy and human rights.  See

tan-kabul-evacuation-intl/index.html, and

The Washington Post Editorial Board bemoaned that It’s been a bleak summer for democracy and civil society worldwide. It’s time to turn it around.  “This has been a horrible summer for the causes of democracy and civil society. The bleakest news has been the triumph of a despotic, fundamentalist movement in Afghanistan. But around the world, dictators have been aggressively destroying the elements of any open and free society: the news media, unions, political parties, movements and their leaders. They are bottling up the rights to free speech and assembly and straitjacketing competition. Welcome to the summer of freedom lost.” See

The rights of women illustrate the correlation of religion with the cultural values that shape political legitimacy.  Jill Lawrence has observed that changes in cultural values must come from within: We can’t make a country care about its own women.  Only Afghanistan can do that.  See

E. J. Dionne, Jr. has asked, Can religion strengthen democracy?  Dionne noted that “Most of us would regard a faith that promotes love, compassion and justice differently from a belief system that encourages violence, intolerance and hatred.”  But then acknowledged that “in recent years large sections of the Christian right embraced Donald Trump, the antithesis of Christian values.

...The use of religion by a hard, often authoritarian right suggests that religion is not always democracy’s friend.  And the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan reminds us that certain fervent forms of theism are implacably opposed to tolerance and openness.” See

A commentary from 2015 advocating persuasion over coercion anticipated a disastrous end to America’s misplaced Afghanistan crusade.  It remains as relevant today as it was then.  See 

American Exceptionalism: The Power of Persuasion or Coercion? (November 15, 2015)


No comments:

Post a Comment