In the Arena

Afghan Election This Week

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I’m beginning to hope that Hamid Karzai pulls a Ahmadi-Khamenei and steals the thing. Yes, he is corrupt and incompetent. Yes, democracy is a wonderful thing. But too much democracy, too soon, in a country that is barely governed–see under Palestine, 2005–can be a toxic disaster. The problem in Afghanistan is, as the NY Times reports today, Taliban intimidation of the Pashtun majority population in the south and east of the country.

Karzai is a Pashtun. His vote could be depressed to the point where his primary opponent, Abdullah (or Abdullah Abdullah) comes first or a very close second, forcing a runoff. Why is that bad? Well, it wouldn’t be, if the election were perceived as fair and unimpeded on all sides. Abdullah, a doctor and former foreign minister, is an entirely credible candidate. He is also of mixed parentage–his father a Pashtun, his mother a Tajik–and is therefore the favored candidate of the non-Pashtun north, and that is where the problem comes in.

One of Karzai’s few achievements has been to create a government that unites Tajiks and Pashtuns–you may remember that before September 11, Afghanistan was split between the Pashtun Taliban government and a non-Pashtun rebel movement, the Northern Alliance. If the Taliban manage to significantly suppress the Pashtun vote, to Karzai’s detriment and Abdullah’s advantage, the Pashtuns may be even less motivated to pledge allegiance to the Kabul government than they are now. A runoff election would not be catastrophic, but it would add to the uncertainty that currently hobbles the Kabul government and the U.S. effort to stablilize the country.

The truth is, this Afghan election has been terrible diversion of resources from the start. The NATO alliance has had to put much of its energy into developing a plan to secure the election,  rather than concentrating on the difficult work of counter-insurgency. The US diplomatic team has also had to divert resources that might have gone to bolstering civil society and economic development in the provinces.

This is another terrible legacy of the Bush Administration, which figured that the appearance of democracy was all that mattered–while flagrantly neglecting the factors on the ground that create an environment where democracy can actually take hold.  Elections are only one aspect of democracy; they do not define it. They can easily be exploited by the powerful and the corrupt, if the proper conditions for a ballot don’t exist. In this case, an election is standing in the way of developments–security, the rule of law, education, the creation of a viable middle class–that could make democracy possible in Afghanistan, after a time.

Make no mistake, I’ll be thrilled if the election comes off credibly and Taliban mischief is minimized. But I’m worried that this vote could turn into a major step backward for our efforts in Afghanistan.