Friday, August 21, 2009

Afghanistan's Elections: Was There Really Much Point?

All the major dailies today report on yesterday's elections in Afghanistan (NY Times here, WaPost here, Wall Street Journal here, LA Times here, and the Financial Times here). The results won't be known for several days - maybe on Monday - but we can note at this point, this much:

  • The US and the Afghan authorities are calling the elections a success - the underlying idea being, hey, what more did you expect, given the conditions and the Taliban's intimidation, which, by the way, was deadly, as the WSJ reports:
    Taliban militants had stepped up attacks for a week and threatened to target polling places with suicide squads to disrupt the vote and force voters to stay home. In the end they managed 73 attacks across the nation amid massive security efforts. The dead included a U.S. soldier and a British soldier.
  • Turnout was low, probably well under 50 percent - and it was uneven across the country (which is, of course, a quilt of rival ethnic and tribal groups).
  • Although there are as yet no claims of massive fraud, there's plenty of evidence of a lot of "irregularities."
  • That being the case, there will be plenty upon which to base post-election protests.

Of course, the US will chalk up one more victory for "democracy," because ballots were cast and a president will be elected (although a second round of balloting may be needed).

But the reality is hardly so rosy. The favorite going in - and probable winner - was the incumbent, Hamid Karzai, whom the US essentially installed shortly after the 2001 invasion. By all accounts, his tenure has been a disaster, rife with corruption, and in the weeks leading up to the election, Karzai was wheeling and dealing, buying off various rivals with promises of influential (and undoubtedly lucrative) government posts, and bringing on board sundry warlords (including the notorious human-rights abuser Abdul Rashid Dostum). Karzai's brother is also up to his neck in Afghanistan's extremely lucrative - and supposedly extremely illegal - poppy/opium industry.

Nonetheless, this is the democracy that Mr. Obama is buying and hoping to safeguard with American lives and treasure. But is there really any point to all of this? Afghanistan is never going to become the model of a centralized democratic state. And as much as I want to see women's rights there brought into the modern age, the US military occupation and degradation of the country is not going to achieve that.

But Mr. Obama has decided that the Afghan war is a war of "necessity." Notably, Richard Haass (the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, and author of “War of Necessity, War of Choice: A Memoir of Two Iraq Wars”) disagrees. In a NYT opinion piece today, Haass argues persuasively that the current war is indeed a war of choice. At this point, Haass argues, it may be worth pursuing, but he also argues for regular and rigorous assessment of its progress and for keeping open the withdrawal option if pursuing the war there proves too costly to US interests in general.

Again, this is a war that the US cannot "win." We may be able to band-aid some of Afghanistan's gaping wounds, perhaps apply some direct pressure here and there to hold the bleeding, but any lasting surgical repair has to come from forces within Afghanistan.

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