From Afghanistan to the Sahel — is Washington listening?

From Afghanistan to the Sahel — is Washington listening?
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America’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan has been declared a catastrophic failure of intelligence. How did the Afghan Army collapse in a matter of weeks — and should it have been a surprise that President Ashraf Ghani, along with his cabinet, would abandon their country in the cover of darkness?

Let’s put aside the billions of dollars of intelligence assets that missed the mark and consider instead that we knew from openly available data and decided not to listen to what we didn’t want to hear.

I contend that U.S. sponsored polling — credibly conducted and made publicly available — should be an essential gauge of the suitability and sustainability of American foreign policy. 

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I hope to encourage the Biden administration to learn from Afghanistan as it develops an Africa policy including in the Sahel, which has the fastest growing Islamist insurgency in the world.

Since 2004, the Asia Foundation, with funding from the U.S. government, has conducted a survey of the Afghan people, measuring their opinion on security, elections, governance, corruption, reconciliation with the Taliban, access to media, and the role of women in society. Its last assessment was performed between September 2020 and February 2021with a goal of understanding the views of the Afghan people as “domestic, regional, and international actors enter of new phase of achieving peace with the withdrawal of international forces.”

The data forewarned of the steadily declining confidence in the government, with over 95 percent of respondents believing that corruption was a significant problem and directly responsible for the state’s inability to deliver basic services. Trust in the Afghan state security services, military, and police similarly fell — with more than 75 percent of Afghans fearing for their personal safety, citing the inability of these forces to protect their lives and livelihoods.

A majority of respondents said they supported peace talks with the Taliban, but not a peace at any price; 81 percent said that they would be unwilling to accept an agreement if women’s rights were not protected, or without guarantees for individual freedoms.

Further, while there was some readiness to accept a role for the Taliban in government, over half (54.6 percent) of respondents said they would not be prepared to proceed with a peace agreement if control of the provinces were ceded to the Taliban.

For the Afghanis, the rapid defeat of the Army and their abandonment by the Ghani administration was hardly a surprise, and their fate under Taliban rule, tragically anticipated.

What lessons does Afghanistan suggest for the Biden administration’s unfolding policy in Africa, where there have been three military take-overs in West Africa in less than 12 months, a region where ungoverned space can provide a breeding ground for America’s enemies?

Again, we turn to the data.  

Afrobarometer, the continent’s foremost surveyor of national public opinion on democracy, conducted 45,000 face-to face interviews in 34 countries and found that nearly 7 in 10 Africans believe that democracy is preferable to all other forms of government, but at the same time, more than half were dissatisfied with the quality of their own democracy.

Afrobarometer concludes that there is a “democratic deficit” where demand exceeds supply, and because of this, there is a danger that unmet democratic demands may lead to social unrest or a return of authoritarianism.

Its recent reporting has been eerily predictive.

In March to April 2020, four months before the August coup in Mali that deposed President Ibrahim Keita, Afrobarometer reported that 86 percent of Malians believed their country was going in the wrong direction. The discontent was smoldering; it needed a match, and it got it — the rigging of the country’s parliamentary elections.

Similarly, the September 2021 coup that deposed Guinea President Alpha Condé can be understood in the context of Afrobarometer 2019 findings, which showed that a majority of Guineans believed that their country was heading in the wrong direction, with eight in 10 favoring enforced two-term limits. Condé rammed a constitutional change through anyway.

In both cases, entrenched leaders stripped away the ballot box as an outlet for legitimate grievances, and the military stepped in to fill the void.

It is an unsustainable and deeply flawed fix.

As the Biden administration prepares for its Democracy Summit on Dec. 9 and 10, to set forth “an affirmative agenda for democratic renewal and to tackle the greatest threats faced by democracies,” I have a few thoughts that are data-driven.

First, a statement of the obvious: What matters is what the population wants for itself, and how those desires are reflected in — and delivered by — their governing bodies. It’s not just about what Washington thinks.

Second, the Biden administration should make a deeper investment in data collection — non-partisan, and available on open platforms — like that of the Asia Foundation and Afrobarometer. Further, this information needs to be mainstreamed into policy making and not sidelined as a public relations instrument, pushed out to the media but not consumed institutionally.  

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Third, the Biden administration should take a deep dive into the Afrobarometer findings as it considers its Africa strategy. If it does, it will see that a flawed election, pushed under the rug, will return with a vengeance; that a constitutional coup is just as damaging to state legitimacy as a military takeover; that citizens take corruption personally, as if they themselves have been robbed; and that despite the disappointments, the coups, the corruption, the electoral failures, Africans are resilient and still believe that democracy is the best form of government.

But how long is that going to last?

Fourth and finally, African governments and institutions — in partnership with their international stakeholders, including the United States — need to reignite the belief that democracy can deliver for the people; otherwise the terrorists, the coup plotters, and the authoritarians will occupy the high ground, like they now do in Afghanistan.

K. Riva Levinson is president and CEO of KRL International LLC, a D.C.-based consultancy that works in the world’s emerging markets, award-winning author of "Choosing the Hero: My Improbable Journey and the Rise of Africa's First Woman President" (Kiwai Media, June 2016).She also serves on the international advisory board of Afrobarometer. You can follow her @rivalevinson