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Weekly Commentary — Afghanistan — Delusions about Democracy

2009 October 26
by rahul

After two months of delays in vote-counting, wrangling, fraud investigations, and fevered consultations that make even the American elections look like a paragon of modernist efficiency, plans are finally in place for a runoff election in Afghanistan, to be held on November 7. Although President Hamid Karzai got almost 55% of the votes in the initial tally from the August election, an election audit carried out under the aegis of the U.N. found widespread fraud. Hundreds of thousands of votes were disqualified, bringing Karzai’s share of the vote down to 48%; although his main challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, also benefited from fraudulent votes, the vast majority of the fraud was carried out on behalf of Karzai.

Over here, we have been subject to two months of commentary about the great importance of clean elections to the American counterinsurgency effort. The Afghans must perceive their government to be legitimate; otherwise, there is no way to control the growth of the neo-Taliban. A fraudulent election undermines that legitimacy. This whole stream of commentary grows out of the earlier trope of blaming American failures in Afghanistan on the corruption of the Karzai government; statements that success requires that the Americans pressure Karzai into somehow eliminating corruption abound, at least inside the beltway.

Although the ability of pundits, the chattering classes, and specialized military analysts in the United States to figure out what is relevant to understanding the dynamics of the protracted occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan has certainly increased over the past several years, the discourse still retains a hallucinatory quality.

At a superficial level, the current approach is self-contradictory. As Julia Mahlejd writes on the blog, Afghans must be perplexed at the conclusion that Karzai and Abdullah benefited from widespread fraud and that the remedy is to let them have a runoff election. Especially with Karzai, where the scale of the fraud strongly suggests his own complicity, this is a reward for criminality; why not disqualify such candidates and have a runoff between the ones who are clean?

Add to that the fact that turnout in the runoff is expected to be even below the anemic 30% of the August elections, and that some additional polling booths in the war-torn areas, where most of the fraud emanated from, are going to be closed. How is an election supposed to provide legitimacy among a population that won’t actually get a chance to vote and many of whom won’t even know about the election?

More deeply, what is the source of this belief, suddenly emerging in time for the elections, that making a mark on a ballot is of such fundamental significance to the average Afghan? Afghanistan no doubt has its liberal-minded citizens of the world to whom democracy is an abstract virtue of surpassing importance, perhaps even those who believe that marking a ballot to choose who will be the head of a state with no power, no revenue, and no commitment to the welfare of the people involves some realization of that abstract virtue, but such people are few and far between and likely doing little or nothing to support the neo-Taliban insurgency.

On the other hand, consider the weakness of democracy as a principle of legitimation even in the United States, where the population has been steeped in talk about it for over 200 years. When widespread fraud (the illegal disenfranchisement of tens of thousands of voters), followed by a risibly inconsistent Supreme Court decision won Bush the 2000 election in Florida, opinions on the matter divided almost entirely along partisan lines. If you wanted Bush to win, you were for the final verdict; if you wanted Gore to win, you were against. Where was the mass of people to whom democracy itself mattered so much? Now, consider how much experience Afghans have with the rhetoric and practice of democracy — none, except for a few years of rhetorical bombast from Bush administration officials — and ask yourself how much the concept means to them.

It is true, of course, that the corruption and general ineffectuality of the Kabul government are a real problem for the counterinsurgents. But no one is asking why it is that the United States always seems to end up backing corrupt governments with no interest in the people’s welfare — and why it is that at least some of their foes, like the NLF in South Vietnam and apparently at least some of the neo-Taliban groups — are better able to provide security and governance than our allies.

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