Saturday, April 09, 2005

Remember Afghanistan? (Normblog)

Guest-posted on the weblog of Norman Geras (Normblog)

by Jeff Weintraub

1. The political history of the past several decades has driven home the fact that elections can sometimes be moments of revelation, with powerful and unexpected effects - for example, the Chilean referendum of 1988, which the Pinochet dictatorship expected to win but which instead brought it to an end; the Philippine election of 1986 that toppled the Marcos dictatorship; the recent Ukrainian elections, and so on.

Of course, this doesn't happen all the time or in all circumstances. Authoritarian governments that put on a show of contested elections can still manage to steal them and get away with it - as just happened in Zimbabwe. And straightforward gangster regimes can simply ignore lost elections, if they're willing to rule without even the pretence of legitimacy - for example, when over 80% of the Burmese electorate voted in 1990 for the opposition led by Aung San Suu Kyi, the military dictatorship responded by ignoring the results and putting her under house arrest. And the less said about the long-term consequences of the Algerian elections of 1992, the better.

Nevertheless, it has to be recognized that elections can often be exceptionally powerful political rituals - understanding 'ritual' in a Durkheimian rather than a dismissive sense - that carry substantial moral authority, and sometimes they are even symbolic earthquakes that transform the political landscape. The recent elections in Iraq belong in this category, and it seems increasingly clear that the same is true for the elections in Afghanistan in October 2004.

During the period leading up to the Afghan elections, I must confess that I was inclined not to take them very seriously. This was the prevailing conventional wisdom among most observers, informed or otherwise, reflected in the bulk of the news coverage. Some of the reasons for this attitude were and remain plausible. It was not clear that the Afghans would actually be able to pull off the elections. And even if they did, successfully holding an election is not enough, by itself, to establish a stable and effective political regime - let alone one with a serious claim to be called democratic. Afghanistan was still suffering from the effects of decades of war and devastation, and there were continuing guerrilla and terrorist attacks by Taliban and other jihadist forces based in Pakistan, with some residual support among Afghan Pushtuns. Much of the country was being run by local warlords (though Hamid Karzai had recently taken decisive action against some of the most powerful warlords, even dislodging the apparently untouchable Ismail Khan from control of Herat); it seemed likely that the very high voter registration figures were due partly to some voters registering more than once (though the election officials did work out practical ways to prevent multiple voting - which seem to have mostly worked); and so on.

Well, I was wrong (along with the rest of the conventional wisdom). The elections turned out to be a major political event. In some ways the Taliban themselves, who bitterly opposed holding the elections, helped to make them a crucial turning point. The Taliban condemned the elections, promised to disrupt them, and threatened to kill anyone who voted. They comprehensively failed to do this. The elections went ahead with minimal disruption; voter turnout (including that of women voters) was massive, even in the Pushtun areas; and the Taliban did not actually manage to murder, or even intimidate, many potential voters. Whether this happened because they lacked the capacity to disrupt the elections, or because they realized that trying to do so would cause a backlash against them, almost doesn't matter. Either way, the elections were a devastating political defeat for the Taliban, with very damaging effects on their prestige and morale.

Does this guarantee that there will be a decent outcome for Afghanistan in the long run? Of course not. But those who continue to scoff at the Afghan elections as a meaningless charade, or to dismiss Karzai as no more than 'the mayor of Kabul', are not facing reality.

2. The Afghan elections and their aftermath provide an occasion to consider how Afghanistan has been doing more generally since the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001. Here again, it's useful to try to face reality - which is complex.

Many people who opposed the 2001 anti-Taliban war continue to claim, in the face of all logic and evidence, that the war - which overthrew one of the most appalling, repressive, and reactionary regimes on the planet, as well as bringing a long-running Afghan civil war to an end - was somehow bad for Afghanistan and the Afghan people. It is time for such people to simply admit that, on this point, they were wrong. All the serious reports on life in Afghanistan since 2001, even the most critical and pessimistic, indicate otherwise. And as Peter Bergen pointed out in a New York Times op-ed piece on September 23, if there were any truth at all to this picture, then it would be difficult to explain why millions of Afghan refugees have returned home since the fall of the Taliban, and continue to do so, rather than fleeing in the opposite direction.

If they want, people who opposed the anti-Taliban war can continue to argue that the war was wrong, unjust, unwise, illegal, and/or imperialist on other grounds. Right or wrong, these arguments raise different issues. But people who make them should honestly face up to the reality that, on balance, the effects of the war were and continue to be beneficial, not harmful, for the great majority of Afghans.

At the same time, it is also true that by any reasonable standard (as distinct from the standard set by the Taliban regime), Afghanistan is still in a terrible mess. It remains devastated and impoverished, with barely rudimentary state institutions and public services. Security is uneven, literacy is low, infant mortality is high, and opium production is booming. As Ahmed Rashid - who knows what he's talking about - indicated in a recent piece for the BBC, it will still require a major effort just to rebuild the 'minimum basic infrastructure that was present in 1979 before the Soviet invasion.'

Ahmed Rashid's piece and two other recent discussions capture some of the complexities of the situation, from slightly different angles. On the one hand, Afghanistan is far from a lost cause, and overall things have gotten better since 2001. On the other hand, Afghanistan needs and deserves more effective help from the so-called international community - meaning not just the US, which could certainly be doing more, but also Europe, Japan, and others. (And, for that matter, why not Muslim countries as well? Much of the Islamic world rather shamefully opposed the war to overthrow the Taliban. Helping Afghans now would be one way to partly redeem themselves.)

(Jeff Weintraub)

Posted by Norm at 02:08 PM | Permalink