Democracy, particularly at first, is hard work. It requires any number of political and cultural precursors as well as a commitment on the part of all participating parties to play by a common set of rules. It cannot be imposed from on high, much less wished into existence by a few utopian speeches from abroad. Nowhere has this become more obvious, but with less attention being paid, than in Afghanistan today.
Owing to the never-ending catastrophe in Iraq, the war in Afghanistan has faded from public consciousness. Given the lack of press coverage of a still very hot war in which over 130 U.S. soldiers have died, many Americans might be surprised to learn that on Oct. 9, Afghanis will finally go to the polls to choose their president. The only problem with this is that the election appears structured for certain failure.
President Bush announced in his convention speech in September, "In Afghanistan, terrorists have done everything they can to intimidate people – yet more than 10 million citizens have registered to vote in the October presidential election – a resounding endorsement of democracy." Indeed, the figures demonstrate a more successful registration campaign than even the State or Defense departments may wish to admit. While it’s true that over 10 million people have registered to vote in Afghanistan, the untidy and largely unreported fact of the matter is that the country only has a voting age population of about 9.5 million overall. The 10 million figure has grown to the level of absurdity given the fact that a mere three months ago, President Hamid Karzai maintained that only five million names were on the electoral list, in response to reports from the Independent and the Christian Science Monitor of registration figures numbering between 1.6 and 3 million. So a registration figure of 10 million leads one to wonder whether, secretly, Jeb Bush and Katherine Harris have emigrated to Afghanistan.
Conspicuous evidence of voter fraud continues to circulate. In August, for instance, the BBC reported that in the Panjshir Valley, the number of registration cards that have been issued is two and a half times the estimated number of eligible voters in the region. The inflated registration figures have already led two presidential candidates, Latif Pedram, leader of the Congress Mili Afghanistan Party, and independent candidate Ahmad Shah Amadzai, to call for an investigation. The Toronto Star quoted Afghan historian Assem Akram explaining, "The United States wants, before the November elections, to showcase a victory of the Bush administration by proving it is possible to bring democracy to an Islamic Third World country." The Star‘s reporters also found a voter who registered six times, using his real name and photograph. The Century Fund’s "Afghanistan Watch" breaks down the numbers further, and finds 120 percent of the male voting population has registered to vote, with 13 of 34 provinces over-registered. Is this what the president means when he says, “freedom is on the march”?
The forthcoming January elections inspire, if anything, even less confidence than those in Afghanistan. As Fareed Zakaria recently pointed out in Newsweek, the upcoming elections may actually pose more of a threat to the stability of Iraq than the potential for progress. While the Shia are presently at least nominally on our side, they may try to use the election process to shut the Sunnis out of power entirely. “Today,” he writes, “a significant number of Sunnis feel disenfranchised, and thus they support the guerrillas (estimates vary from 25 percent to 65 percent). If they are cut out of the government, all will feel disenfranchised. And to have 20 percent of the country‹people who are well trained and connected‹supporting an insurgency makes it extremely difficult to defeat militarily."
Adding to the above danger is the inability of the U.S. even to penetrate much of the country, including large sections of the "Sunni Triangle" and at least one of the country’s 18 provincial capitals, Ramadi. The U.S. military also has an extremely tenuous grip over a second capital, Baquba, while large cities in the region, like Samarra, are largely in the hands of insurgents as well. The country’s largest group of Sunni clerics, the Association of Muslim Scholars, has announced its refusal to participate. As Ghassan al-Atiyyah, the director of the Iraqi Foundation for Development and Democracy, tells the New York Times, "Bad elections will open wounds rather than heal them. If the Sunnis do not vote, then you could end up with a polarized Parliament that could lead to civil war."
Washington’s response has been to leak plans of a major assault on rebel-controlled areas after the November elections, as well as stories of a likely U.S. withdrawal from Iraq entirely. Obviously, there is no clear plan to do anything yet. Before the war, the Iraqi occupation was frequently compared by war supporters to those of Japan and Germany. Historians objected but the would-be conquerors were unimpressed. Now we hear conservative voices like that of pundit Mark Steyn attempting to compare Fallujah to the UK and Northern Ireland. "Two soldiers were yanked from a cab in the wrong part of town and torn apart by a Republican mob," he notes, while the Kurds on the other hand are merely "content to be Scotland" and the deadly Sunni Triangle "looks like…the fledgling Iraqi federation’s Northern Ireland for a while to come." According to Steyn, in two-thirds of Iraq, "restaurants are open, [and] life is as jolly as it has been in living memory." Heavy fighting in Fallujah is no more worrisome to this pundit than two soldiers being pulled from a cab, the Kurds are simply awaiting their Braveheart and most Iraqis are having a “jolly” time. Had Steyn consulted the Financial Times this week, he might have learned that between April 5 and Sept. 12 of this year, a total of 3,186 Iraqis died in violent incidents, 942 of these deaths occurring in Baghdad alone.
While much of the conservative punditocracy continues to cling to the Pollyannaish equation that “elections = democracy = stability,” history, as well as our own eyes, tells us that the process will be far more complex and filled with potential pitfalls. Failing to recognize this in advance is a recipe for continued chaos, further death and destruction, and ultimately, the discrediting of the very idea of democracy in the minds of millions of Arabs and Muslims—if they have not done so already.
Eric Alterman is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the author of six books, including the just-published When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences. Paul McLeary is a New York writer.