Afghan democracy may just survive

Post-occupation Afghanistan may at least avoid a rerun of the disastrous civil war that followed the Soviet withdrawal

Gwynne Dyer

“We have to recognise that Afghanistan will not be a perfect place, and it’s not America’s responsibility to make it one,” said President Barack Obama last May. No, it isn’t, and Afghanistan is a strikingly imperfect society in almost every respect: politics, economy, security and human rights. But it isn’t entirely a lost cause, either.

President Hamid Karzai, who was given the job of running Afghanistan after the United States invaded in 2001 and subsequently won two deeply suspect elections in 2004 and 2009, finally left office on Monday, although he didn’t move very far. (His newly built private home backs onto the presidential palace.) On the way out, he took one last opportunity to bite the hand that fed him for so long.

“The war in Afghanistan is to the benefit of foreigners,” he said. “Afghans on both sides are the sacrificial lambs and victims of this war.” The US ambassador, James Cunningham, said that “his remarks, which were uncalled for, … dishonour the huge sacrifices Americans have made here,” but they were, of course, true.

Karzai’s remarks, though undiplomatic, are just common sense. The U.S. did not invade the country to bring democracy, prosperity and feminism to the long-suffering Afghan people. It did so because some of the senior planners of the 9/11 attacks had been allowed to set up camps there by members of the Taliban regime who shared their religious ideology.

Over 1,400 American soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan (together with 400 British soldiers, 150 Canadians, and sundry others), and they all basically died for a particular U.S. official vision of how American security might be best be assured. How else could the 13-year U.S. military commitment in Afghanistan possibly be justified to the American people?

As to whether the long occupation was also in Afghanistan’s interest, that depends very much on the stability and success of the two-headed potential monster of a government that is now being created in Kabul.

Karzai has handed over the reins of power to two very different men, after five months of bitter disagreement over which one of them had really won last April’s presidential election. It was not as blatantly rigged as either of the two elections that maintained Karzai in the presidency, but it was still pretty dodgy.

In the first round of voting, when there were eleven candidates, the leader was Abdullah Abdullah, with 45 percent of the vote, and the runner-up was Ashraf Ghani, with only 31 percent. In the second round, Abdullah Abdullah’s vote actually dropped two points to 43 percent, while Ashraf Ghani’s almost doubled to 56 percent. The age of miracles truly is not past.

Even more suspiciously, the number of people voting in some of the districts that supported Ashraf Ghani tripled between the first and second rounds of voting. So Abdullah Abdullah cried foul, and the inauguration of a new president was endlessly postponed while the ballots cast were “audited” by an electoral commission that had been chosen by Hamid Karzai.

There was never going to be a clear answer to the question of who really won the election, and so after months of drift and delay a deal was struck. Ashraf Ghani, a former senior official at the World Bank, will be president. Abdullah Abdullah, a former resistance fighter during the Soviet occupation in the 1980s and later foreign minister under Karzai, will nominate a “chief executive officer” who will act more or less as prime minister.

It is, in other words, a traditional Afghan carve-up, with a proportional slice of power for every one of the country’s ethnic groups. Ghani will ensure that Pashtuns get the biggest share of the good jobs, and look after the Uzbeks as well. Abdullah will take care of the Tajiks and Hazaras. But compared to your average Afghan warlord or Taliban fanatic, both men look pretty good.

Indeed, Afghanistan’s government and nascent democratic system might actually survive and prove to be fit for purpose. After three decades of Russian and American occupation, a significant minority of Afghans (certainly several millions) have been exposed to many examples of how post-tribal societies run their affairs.

Afghanistan is still a tribal society, so this carve-up of power on an ethnic basis may be a better option for the country than winner-takes-all politics. And if the United States and its allies do not abruptly cut off the foreign aid that keeps the whole show on the road, post-occupation Afghanistan may at least avoid a rerun of the disastrous civil war that followed the Soviet withdrawal and the sudden ending of Soviet subsidies in 1992.

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist based in London

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