Elections, democracy and Afghanistan

News Analysis

In its drive to show the world — and the American people — that Washington can bring “democracy” to areas where it’s deemed lacking around the globe, the Bush administration has set great store by the presidential election in Afghanistan, finally held Oct. 9 after two previous delays. What happened there has implications for the projected January balloting in Iraq, and should be an issue in our Nov. 2 elections as well.

On the surface, according to the mainstream media, many aspects of the process were successful. Despite the widespread violence and insecurity, voter registration exceeded all expectations, with over 10 million Afghans signing up (some reportedly more than once). Women, though only marginally better off under interim president Hamid Karzai’s government than they were under the fanatically oppressive Taliban, nonetheless formed 43 percent of registered voters. Turnout was high. The incidence of anti-election attacks was much less than anticipated. Despite the charges of fraud brought on by irregularities, including failure of an ink-marker system, Karzai’s principal rivals — most based in the all-pervasive warlord gangs — backed down from their threatened boycott and said they would accept the results of a United Nations investigation.

Though it will take as long as three weeks to count all the ballots, the U.S.-installed Karzai, once a consultant to oil transnational Unocal, is expected to be declared the winner.

But a deeper look reveals many questions about the real content of the democracy the Bush administration is pushing, and many challenges in the way of a democratic and peaceful future for the Afghan people. To pick just three:

Warlords, Taliban and Al Qaeda: As much as 40 percent of the country is controlled by the re-emergent Taliban in the southeast, and feudal warlord fiefdoms dominate most of the rest. Outbreaks of fighting are frequent among heavily armed former Northern Alliance allies.

Washington gave birth to both warlords and Taliban — the former having been built up by the U.S. as mujahedeen leaders in Washington’s proxy war against the national-democratic People’s Democratic Party government, and the Taliban having been fostered after the mujahedeen gangs fell into chronic civil war following destruction of the PDP government. Al Qaeda, still present along the Afghan-Pakistan border, has similar origins. Prospects are limited that most Afghans could safely vote against the forces dominant in their area.

Opium and the economy: Under conditions of continuing violence and the pervasive devastation from 25 years of fighting, Afghanistan’s economy continues to be dominated by the opium trade. Opium poppies have long funded the warlords, the Taliban and probably also Al Qaeda. In 2003 the drug trade constituted over half the country’s national income, and the opium grown in most Afghan provinces made up three-quarters of world production. Though Karzai has announced an all-out campaign against it, desperately poor small farmers grow opium poppies because it pays far more than anything else they could grow, and because the lack of effective central government keeps them from getting help to shift to socially productive crops.

The continuing oppression of women: Though women were 43 percent of registered voters, they make up 60 percent of the population. Only 10 percent of women are literate. Despite the lip-service given women’s rights since the Taliban were driven from central government three years ago, the warlords of the former Northern Alliance continue the often violent feudal and tribal oppression of women. Even Karzai is reported to have encouraged men to let their womenfolk register by telling them, “later, you can control who she votes for.”

In sum, to claim that the holding of the Oct. 9 presidential election has put Afghanistan on the path to democracy is to fall under the spell of that particular brand of ideological opium peddled by the Bush administration. Only a clear-headed, grassroots-oriented, United Nations-led reconstruction policy can begin to help the Afghan people overcome the terrible devastation inflicted on them by successive U.S. administrations, and return to the path to peace, independence and democracy they embarked on so briefly nearly a quarter century ago.

The author can be reached at mbechtel@pww.org.