Americans are inclined to write off Pakistan and Afghanistan as chronic hotbeds of Islamic fanaticism, beset with weak governance and prone to tampering by big powers. Better to accept the stereotypes and withdraw aid, troops, and then hope for stable democracy. At best, let drones or Navy SEALs pick off Taliban or Al Qaeda who are menacing the West.
Well, not so fast.
On May 11, Pakistan is set to reach a milestone with its first democratic transfer of civilian power. That’s because the government of Pakistani Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf was able to complete a full, five-year term in March, allowing it to call for an election.
A peaceful transition would be quite an achievement for a nation with a history of military coups, massive corruption, terrorist bombings, factional politics, high-level assassinations, paranoia about India, and devastating floods and earthquakes.
Most of all, it would signify progress toward Pakistan seeing itself as both a Muslim and democratic state. The conflict between those two identities has dogged the South Asian nation ever since independence 66 years ago, with jihadists often allowed to operate openly.
The May election will also mark the first time that political parties will be allowed to compete for the vote in the tribal areas, home to the most radical Islamic groups. The nation’s constitutional process will be geographically complete.
In Afghanistan, meanwhile, dozens of villages in an area once seen as a Taliban stronghold are showing signs of rising up against the militants because of their violent brutality and heavy-handed influence.
Since February, residents near the key city of Kandahar have openly rallied against the Taliban, showing a confidence in Afghan forces and elected officials. Polls in the area show less than a third of the people approve of the Taliban.
This grass-roots solidarity reflects the country’s progress in other areas, such as a sharp drop in infant mortality and illiteracy (especially among girls). The country had only 10,000 land-line telephones a decade ago; now two-thirds of its people have cellphones. Finally connected to the world, Afghans can dream of following the aspirations of Arab Awakening protesters and other hopeful trends.
Like Pakistan, Afghanistan faces a crucial test of its democracy with presidential and parliamentary elections due in 2014 and 2015. This will be the third national election since the United States and NATO liberated the country in 2011 from Taliban rule.
Both countries may face difficult times ahead. But it will be hard to reverse new freedoms and a desire for representative government once the people have had time to experience them.
The West has often missed the ground-level passion for liberty in many countries by focusing too much on strategic interests. Concern about Iran’s nuclear program, for example, led the US to not support that country’s pro-democracy protests in 2009. And the Arab uprising that began in 2011 was hardly anticipated. It was only cautiously favored in Western capitals out of fear of possible implications for Israel, oil supplies, and other interests.
Creating the conditions for democracy to grow is never easy. But when democracy starts to take root, it deserves more attention and nurturing.