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Afghan Elections

After some initial indications that things had gone badly wrong, the reporting on the Afghan elections looks to me like my source's predictions have come true -- there were problems with the vote, but not problems that are so severe as to undermine the fact that the winner, Hamid Karzai, is the genuine choice of the Afghan people and will be viewed as legitimate. This is an excellent thing. The narrow point of domestic US politics to make is that the key Bush administration decision which facilitated this celebration-worthy occurence -- to invade Afghanistan following 9/11 -- was utterly uncontroversial in mainstream US politics. Democrats recommended doing more, not less, to contribute to Afghan reconstruction.

The more interesting, more highminded question, is why fewer resources have brought better results in Afghanistan than have a much larger quantity of troops and cash in Iraq. Some considerations:

  • Karzai is a more skilled leader than Iyad Allawi.
  • International involvement per se has a value beyond spreading the burden because it makes foreign involvement look less imperial.
  • Afghans are less concerned about the Palestinian issue than are Arabs, which makes it easier for Americans and other Westerners to credibly pose as helpers.
  • The motivation of the Afghan War was clear (al-Qaeda attacked us and the Taliban was protecting al-Qaeda) making Afghans less suspicious of our troops.
  • Afghans got to try out the whole "civil war and ethnic conflict" thing over a prolonged period of time before the invasion, which has decreased the appeal of communal brinksmanship.
  • The decision to allow the central government to be extremely weak lowered the stakes of conflict in Kabul encouraging various actors to compromise.
  • Though it will be a big problem in the medium- and long-term, widespread poppy cultivation has provided Afghans with economic options despite a chaotic security situation and a desperately screwed-up infrastructure.
  • Better cooperation between key regional actors (US, Pakistan, Iran, Uzbekistan) in Afghanistan than in Iraq, where the US, Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey haven't been able to get on the same page.
  • Zalmay Khalizad is a better proconsul than Paul Bremer.
That's all very provisional. People will need to do big, grand studies. It also remains to be seen whether the parliamentary elections will consolidate the gains we've seen or undermine them.

October 11, 2004 | Permalink


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I think this is accidental, but by phrasing the third bullet point as "credibly pose as helpers" there is a strong implication that they're actually not helpers.

Posted by: washerdreyer | Oct 11, 2004 2:37:52 AM

Remove the Sunni vs. Shia vs. Kurdish element and Iraq would be just dandy. :)

The key here is that you can lead horses to democracy, and you can even get them to drink for a time with an occupying force, but sneak away for a bit and...

Either way, Afghanistan was a "must do it" situation. Nation re-building is the inevitable offshoot and cost of undertaking these invasions. The question now becomes what is our timeline on occupation there? Given the pace and awkwardness of events in Pakistan, I can't imagine a near-term endgame and nor would I condone a hasty scaling down. Still, we risk reaching a threshhold of tolerance there, not on the scale of Iraq, but I think we need to recognize that a long-term plan is a necessity.

Posted by: Waffle | Oct 11, 2004 3:00:29 AM

When do you East Coast bloggers sleep?

Posted by: jerry | Oct 11, 2004 3:18:01 AM

When do you East Coast bloggers sleep?

my thoughts exactly. i expect closure by midnight mountain time. which isn't to say that this isn't interesting, of course.

Posted by: jb | Oct 11, 2004 3:24:55 AM

warlordism, as bad as it is, means that there's a kind of local government

I have the impression that local government is more tenuous in Iraq

If we were serious about nation-building, we would have started with local elections, a year ago already, and pumped money thru them to get people busy with reconstruction projects.

Local politics, of a pot-hole filling variety would have put into play the right kind of politicians for a future democratic Iraq

Posted by: Bruce Wilder | Oct 11, 2004 3:34:36 AM

Perhaps the Taliban was just so crazy that they alienated the Afghans to the point where even foreign-backed fighters were a step up? I mean, Saddam was a crazy murderer, but he and his kids crazily murdered you for things like speaking out against him, owning foreign newspapers, complaining about your uncle being thrown in prison, etc. The Taliban crazily murdered you for things like not having a sufficiently long beard, not wearing a burka, having family photographs, etc. Basically, you could live a semi-normal life under Saddam if you kept your head down, accepted poverty, and didn't ask to many questions. There was no way you could have a normal life under the Taliban. Now, Saddam alienated most of his people, but he might have been preferable to a foreign invasion (if there was credible domestic opposition to Saddam, most Iraqis would side with that, as they did in 1991, but turning it from a democracy vs. tyranny issue to a foreign vs. domestic issue gets nationalism involved). The Taliban alienated people to the point where, not only would they prefer domestic democrats to domestic tyrants, but they'd prefer even foreign democrats to domestic tyrants.

Posted by: Julian Elson | Oct 11, 2004 4:04:13 AM

There was no way you could have a normal life under the Taliban.

Actually, the Taliban rose to power because in 1996 most Afghans, apart from pockets in the north, were prepared to trade lots of personal liberty for a modicum of security.

After the collapse of the USSR removed the last line of support for the Najibullah regime (1992), the mujahedeen quickly fragmented into competing groups that spent much of the next four years firing artillery barrages at each other and committing atrocities in raids.

When the Taliban emerged in 1994, with a reputation for meting out shariah justice on renegade mujahedeen factions in the south, they quickly gained popular support. Burkhas and beards (and even beatings) were preferable to bombardments and the burning of houses.

The Taliban alienated people to the point where, not only would they prefer domestic democrats to domestic tyrants, but they'd prefer even foreign democrats to domestic tyrants.

I'm not convinced by that line. I'm more convinced by the old line that you can't buy an Afghan, but you can rent one.

Karzai's position is strengthened by this election, but it doesn't necessarily affect the situation on the ground in the outlying provinces. What it does offer is the potential for Karzai to use his mandate to challenge some of the local fiefdoms before the parliamentary elections take place. That's what will ensure that we don't see a repeat of the post-Najibullah factionalization.

Posted by: ahem | Oct 11, 2004 5:04:52 AM

I expect having an elected chief executive will do as much for Afghanistan as it did for Haiti.

Posted by: David Tomlin | Oct 11, 2004 5:14:50 AM

- Afghanistan doesn't have 1,000,000 tons of ammo lying about.

Posted by: am | Oct 11, 2004 5:38:08 AM

I read Karzai won because all of the other candidates dropped out?

Posted by: will | Oct 11, 2004 6:38:07 AM

"the key Bush administration decision which facilitated this celebration-worthy occurence -- to invade Afghanistan was utterly uncontroversial in mainstream US politics"

I'd bet this wasn't true among your choir.

Posted by: ostap | Oct 11, 2004 6:44:16 AM

Thanks for visiting from Bushworld ostap! Could you please describe what other wonderful misconceptions you hold so we can understand what going on in the President's head?

Posted by: Rob | Oct 11, 2004 7:49:18 AM

Er, Rob? Invading Afghanistan was by no means universally popular on the left. The mainstream left was itself very divided over it.

To step out of the landed punditry for a moment, one of the most hilarious moments in observing the fractiousness of the left's groupthink was when Springsteen released his album in '02. He quiety praised Bush, which led to a warp in the space-time continuum; the "National Review's" music critic loved the record; the "Village Voice" guy panned it, for mostly-political reasons.

But they say success has many fathers; I'm sure most of the left is jumping in on the back-patting today. Just as they will in a year or two, when Iraq is stable and things are ticking along.

Posted by: m | Oct 11, 2004 8:03:18 AM

One possibility you did not pose, is that the fight was already won in Afghanistan, and that the fight had indeed moved to Iraq.

I am a South African who lived under apartheid, fought it, and am now proud to say that I am a liberal participant in a free democracy.

Under Saddam Hussein, the people in Iraq lived under worse tyranny and opression than was ever present in South Africa. I worked in the embassy in Iraq, and saw it first hand.

It shocks me to see my liberal brothers in America criticize a man for liberating a nation from oppression and tyranny.

I am no great fan of George W Bush, but to propose leaving Sadam in power as an alternative to a free Iraq, and to label it the "liberal position", defies logic.

Posted by: Slider | Oct 11, 2004 8:07:23 AM


I think you are missing a big one--Afghanistan has gone better precisely because there are not alot of troops there getting in everyone's face. One of the major successes of the afghan war, which proponents of "doing more" in afghanistan are prone to forget, is that it was done without a heavy american ground presence. This was by design, and the design has worked out rather well (with some obvious hiccups): such order as exists in afghanistan is largely due to the efforts of the afghanis, and no insurgency has sprung up because there is no real occupation.

Posted by: brgreeen | Oct 11, 2004 8:22:41 AM

Good list, to which I would add: Karzai is a Pashtun, and he must have done a good job running up to the election of coopting other Pashtuns such as the "good Taliban," leaving guys like Haqqani, Hekmatyar, and Mullah Omar somewhat isolated.

Posted by: praktike | Oct 11, 2004 8:30:54 AM

I'll back Julian Elson over ahem. The Taliban were popular in 1996, but by 2001 they were widely despised in Afghanistan, even in the Pashtun south, their base. By the time we invaded Afghanistan the Taliban had largely lost their legitimacy in the south, and they never had any in the north. One of our major mistakes in Iraq, pointed out recently by Larry Diamond in Foreign Affairs, was assuming that Saddam would no longer be seen by Iraqis as the legitimate leader of Iraq after the invasion. Unlike the Taliban, Sadam retained fairly broad support, and even today there is some risk that he would win an open election in Iraq.

Our basic problem in Iraq is that we have been unable to achieve legitimacy. A UN backed invasion would have helped, an international coalition would have helped, preventing the looting would have helped, any attempt to invest in Iraqi companies rather than putting all of the reconstruction money in US companies would have helped, etc. etc.

Posted by: tib | Oct 11, 2004 8:31:36 AM

Some more differences to consider:

o Afghanistan is not Arab, and hence the overthrow of the Taliban was not an issue for Arab nationalists

o Iraq had a large number of Baathists who held power because of Saddam. In Afghanistan, the Taliban were primarily "true believers" whose direct influence was consequently more limited

Posted by: russ | Oct 11, 2004 8:56:53 AM

So, Hamid Karzai, the Mayor of Kabul, will remain the Mayor of Kabul. Not particularly interesting.

Posted by: raj | Oct 11, 2004 9:18:34 AM

I feel it is a lot to do with the fact that there really wasn't much infrastructure to be damaged and repaired. There wasn't a lot of bombing, either.

Iraq is much closer to a western country in its infrastructure and population concentrations.

To simply- how hard is it to put up a tent you have knocked down, compared to repairing a building you have carpetbombed?

So really, what you have here is just the fulfillment of extremely low expectations.

Posted by: Chance the Gardener | Oct 11, 2004 9:43:38 AM

Afghanistan is just as unsafe as Iraq, maybe less safe. The VP just survived an assassination attempt. The government does not venture much outside Kabul. Commerce is a mess because bribes must be paid to pass from one local district to the next.

For strictly cold war reasons, the US supported radical fundamentalists in a battle against a progressive secular government, only because that government had received the support of the Soviet Union.

One difference between Afghanistan and Iraq is that the US army is not fighting the local warlords. The Muqtada al Sadr's of Afghanistan are allowed free reign. The US is not fighting them. The US is not invading the Falloojah's of Afghanistan. We disbanded the Iraqi army. They took their weapons home to fight the US in a partisan war. In Afghanistan, we armed pre-existing armies of the warlords.

The border with Pakistan is dangerous and harbors many elements that are unfriendly to the US, all westerners and the governments of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Karzai is the elected head of Afghanistan, but has no more control over the area than the head of NATO has over NATO member countries.

Posted by: bakho | Oct 11, 2004 10:33:51 AM

Jeez. Haven't you guys learned anything from the past couple years? The reason Afghanistan has turned out better than Iraq (talk about damning with faint praise) is that there are no resources in Afghanistan that Western groups wanted to, er, privatize.

I mean, the bodies of the Fedayeen weren't even cold when KBR and its corporate brethern began moving in to claim a piece ofthe Iraqi pie. The Bush Administration/CPA tried to impose an imperial economic system in Iraq, and the internal logic of that scheme required deploying the occupation forces in a way that led to a breakdown in security--the most famous of which is that we guarded the Oil Ministry but not nuclear research sites.

Afghanistan was about revenge, pure and simple, which made it easy to be clear-eyed about what needed to be done--and easy to let other groups participate in the reconstruction, such as it's been. Iraq had aold rush component to it, and it has devolved as badly as the tresure of the Sierra Madre.

Posted by: jlw | Oct 11, 2004 11:02:00 AM

try again:

Iraq had a gold rush component to it, and it has devolved as badly as the tresure of the Sierra Madre.

Posted by: jlw | Oct 11, 2004 11:04:28 AM

I doubt we've heard the whole tale of the Afghan elections. But to think that things are at all going well there flies in the face of what little news we get about the country.

Karzai may have won a nation-wide referendum. Regardless as his authority still travels no further than the outskirts of Kabul.

Opium production is an an all time high.

The war lords and Taliban once again control most of the country.

How does this translate into any degree of success, even compared to Iraq?

If the international community were to fold its tent and leave tomorrow, Afghanistan would devolve once again into full-scale civil war.

Posted by: Jeff | Oct 11, 2004 11:47:16 AM

The commenters above who aren't wearing rose-tinted sunglasses make a good point: Afghanistan is far from stable, and the new government will be very weak - probably unable to sustain itself without the NATO and US forces.

jlw, above, dares to mention a (maybe the) major difference between Afghanistran and Iraq, but without naming names: OIL and the Oil Imperialists.

Iraq's OIL is the unmentioned rationale #25 (really #1) for the Iraq fixation by BushCo, present as an issue in Afghanistan only to the extent that it could provide a route for pipelines from the 'stans to the Indian ocean, as opposed to Iraq with a significant portion of the world's proven oil reserves. Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the rest of the Persian Gulf oil holders are central to understanding not just the US response, but the reaction of the other major and minor powers.

Does anyone believe that we would have invaded Iraq if it held no oil reserves?

This post, and the comments, provide a starting point for a needed comparison in depth of the similarities and differences between the US and world community approaches to the Iraq and Afghanistan situations.

One of the things that blogs usually don't do is re-write the post incorporating the comments and further analysis to present a more considered view. Here's an opportunity to change that.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Oct 11, 2004 1:18:27 PM

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