Democracy Won’t Fix Afghanistan

From the November 2009 Trumpet Print Edition

Afghanistan is in trouble. It is filled with ineffective governing officials and powerless police officers, many of whom moonlight as criminals. Government services are in disarray. Reconstruction projects have proven unhelpful. Unemployment is widespread. Heroin production is booming.

Most concerning to many Afghans, the radical Taliban is staging a relentless comeback. NATO forces are simply too sparse to hold these terrorists in check.

Don’t expect things to improve anytime soon—thanks to a botched national election in August. Operations against the jihadists will have to take somewhat of a backseat to efforts at patching up the wounded government.

President Obama called the election “an important step forward in the Afghan people’s effort to take control of their future, even as violent extremists are trying to stand in their way.” It’s a nice thought—but anyone who still thinks democracy is the solution for Afghanistan should look closer.

Before the election, the Taliban threatened violence against voters; they launched rocket attacks and a suicide bombing that killed seven; they pulled one candidate from his car and shot him—the 13th confirmed political killing since spring. The intimidation worked: Voter turnout was estimated at 20 to 30 percent, and was especially poor in rural areas, which make up four fifths of the country. On election day, 73 more attacks were carried out, killing 20 to 30 people. Several voters had their inked fingers chopped off.

The Afghan Elections Complaints Commission (ECC) received over 2,600 allegations of fraud, including ballot box stuffing, bullying of voters and lack of access to polls, particularly for women. “Fictitious polling booths were set up,” reported Tim McGirk from Kabul, “and in some places, vote riggers were so brazen they did not even bother to remove the individual ballots from the booklets in which they were printed before marking them” (Time, September 10). “The problem is a basic lack of rule of law,” the co-director of the Afghan Analysts Network told Times Online. “In eight years we haven’t established a culture where you follow rules” (September 11). The ECC threw out ballots from 83 polling stations and called for a recount at over 2,500 others.

Additional complications arose from the fact that most of the country is tribal, with local elders who have immense power over the people they are responsible for. “We have tribal agreement,” a laborer in an east Afghani village explained. “When tribal elders request anything we cannot avoid it.” Another individual said that the elders had simply voted for the people. “They helped us and spared all the women the trouble of going and voting,” he said. At many polling stations, 95 percent of the votes went for one candidate.

Two thirds of the population—including 85 percent of the women—are too illiterate to have even read the names on the ballot.

At the time of this writing, Karzai had enough of a lead to avoid a runoff against Abdullah. But UN officials say they believe if the fraudulent votes are pitched, that wouldn’t be the case. Problem is, another vote would take months to stage—months of instability that would open the door for even greater political turbulence.

In fact, the electoral mess is playing right into the Taliban’s hands. “A stream of revelations about systematic cheating during last month’s vote has given the Taliban fresh ammunition in their propaganda campaign to portray President Hamid Karzai’s administration as hopelessly corrupt,” reported the Washington Post. “Infighting among U.S., UN and European diplomats over whether to accept the results with Karzai the winner or force a new round of voting has also fed the Taliban line that the government in Kabul is merely a puppet of foreign powers” (September 21).

And at the end of the process, the president will either be Karzai or Abdullah. Each man would have to reward the supportive regional warlord strongmen with whom they wheeled and dealed. That means giving them positions in the government or otherwise legitimizing their rule over regions of the country.

The bottom line is, democracy is an impossible fit in Afghanistan. The nation’s history of ethno-regional warlordism is simply too strong.

“Ironically,” wrote Stratfor on August 21, “attempts to impose a democratic political system in Afghanistan appear to be undermining the U.S. counterinsurgency strategy.”

In September, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, said it was “premature to make judgments” on whether President Obama’s efforts there are successful, “because we’re only at the initial stages of that policy.”

You’re welcome to keep waiting to make judgments. We’ll stick with what we’ve said from the beginning. America is under a curse. The pride in its power is broken. That is why, as Gerald Flurry has written, “we cannot win the war against terrorism.”