Allowing Afghanistan's future to be hijacked

Are Afghans being sent the message that there is no point in democracy?

Allauddin Khan/AP
Afghan voters stood in line at a polling station in Kandahar, Afghanistan, during a runoff election in June. The two presidential candidates, Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani, are awaiting the results of a vote audit in the wake of charges of fraud.

  • Commentary
  • Nearly five years after the 2001 US-led invasion of Afghanistan, I was having dinner in Kabul with friends, including my wife and son visiting from Europe. Suddenly, a group of men, several of them armed, sauntered in. The one in charge, a wild-haired man with a scraggy beard, announced that they were from the Interior Ministry. When I asked to see their IDs, he immediately began screaming abuse, while his men roughed me up. The fact that various diplomats, aid workers, and journalists were all sitting dumbfounded at the table less than three yards away did not perturb them.

    My “crime,” it appeared, was that I had dared question this senior Afghan official, a former Voice of America employee in Washington who had been placed as a legal” advisor in the ministry. He listened angrily when I reminded him that as part of the “new” Afghanistan, both he and his men were obliged to identify themselves. Nor could they simply enter someone’s house without permission. This was what rule of law was all about.

    While the Western military have treated security as Afghanistan’s biggest problem, local Afghans prefer to cite the government’s failure to respect justice. Few trust the police or the judges. Only those with money and power, Afghans maintain, can buy justice – and elections.

    Of course, as a foreigner, I could take the risk of making a stand. Not so for ordinary Afghans. Even today, the police, many barely literate, regularly beat up or rob anyone who counters them. For their part, the powerful warlords, corrupt government officials, and the privileged elites can do what they like. It all comes down to connections and money. Hence the enthusiastic belief among so many Afghans who took part in this year’s presidential elections that perhaps, somehow, a free and fair vote might finally help bring an end to such abuses. Afghans have always been avid radio listeners, and, in more recent years, TV viewers, so they know the concept of democracy. But they also know that as long as their voices are stifled, there will be no real change.

    I was eventually released, but not before being interrogated by a former KHAD agent, the communist Afghan secret police trained by the East Germans and Bulgarians during the Soviet era. In the days that followed, the ministry went on to threaten members of my staff, including our part-time Afghan cook, a married mother of three who hosted her own family radio show. She was accused of being a prostitute. A British aid worker who lived just down the road – and looked uncannily like me – was assassinated by unknown men as he drove home from dinner. Western security sources believed that I was meant to be the target.

    For a journalist who has covered humanitarian crises and wars worldwide, all this was run of the mill. For my wife and son, however, it was a terrifying experience. Days later, Abdullah Abdullah, then foreign minister and currently one of Afghanistan’s two presidential candidates, invited us to his home. I had known him years earlier as a political aide to renowned Northern Alliance leader Ahmed Shah Massoud, who was assassinated by Al Qaeda operatives two days before 9/11. Touchingly, Abdullah did not want my wife to leave the country with a bad impression. Over a simple meal, we spent the evening discussing Afghan culture, history, and poetry.

    Abdullah’s gesture was indicative of the extraordinary hospitality that Afghans still harbor for their guests. That hospitality is also a saving grace for a society that has endured more than 35 years of war. Ashraf Ghani, Abdullah’s rival, also has his charms, but he is more a technocrat. His conversations do not involve the heart and soul; think more World Bank projects and statistics.

    Nevertheless, both men are worthy contenders for the Afghan presidency. And so it is even more tragic that, once again, the international community and local power elites have allowed Afghanistan’s future to be hijacked.

    It happened when the West imposed its own largely inappropriate top-down vision on Afghanistan at the December, 2001, Bonn talks; it happened again at the 2002 Loya Jirgha, or Grand Assembly, when so many Afghans, particularly women, had such high hopes. For pragmatic reasons, the UN’s chief representative, Lakhmar Brahimi, allowed the warlords to take over, while Washington promoted Hamid Karzai rather than Zahir Shah, the aging former Afghan king. The ex-monarch was the only figurehead leader of any repute who could have galvanized Afghans as a nation. It happened again during the 2009 presidential elections when Karzai was re-elected in a rigged vote. In 2014, it looks no different.

    Even though Afghanistan’s electoral commission has agreed to review all ballots cast, this basic travesty of justice and lack of credibility could have been avoided. Over the past 12 years, the West has spent – or misspent – billions of dollars on a pointless war coupled with a largely ineffective recovery effort. The latter has produced some tangible change, notably in health and education, but certainly not comparable to the money wasted.  

    The West’s involvement in Afghanistan over the past 12 years has been dominated by one failed opportunity after another. Rather than focusing so massively on the military effort rather than well-informed and better-targeted recovery, for example, the international community could have made a significant difference by supporting a proposal made back in 2002, notably the introduction of electronic ID cards. But the idea was consistently ignored as “impractical.” And yet, in a society where mobile phones are now ubiquitous, it could have served as a relatively reliable voter ID, perhaps preventing stuffed ballots. It could also have helped monitor health, educational, and other crucial data, such as vaccination programs.

    For Afghans, the elections are broadly perceived as their last chance before the bulk of foreign troops leave and global development commitment drops even further. Nevertheless, even though Afghans have traditionally proved adept at compromise, the voting abuses may have gone too far. People went to the polls to have their say. To have their vote turned into a shared coalition government primarily because of corruption and abuse of the voting process may only be sending the message that there is no point in democracy. 

    Yet this does not mean the West should abandon Afghanistan. The last time the West lost interest was after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. This led to a ruthless civil war during the early 1990s followed by the rise of the Taliban supported by Al Qaeda, Pakistan, and even the United States. By the time Washington understood what was happening, it was too late.

    A former correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor, Edward Girardet is a Geneva-based journalist and author. His latest book is: Killing the Cranes – A Reporter’s Journey Through Three Decades of War in Afghanistan. He is also editor of the fully-revised 2014 Essential Field Guide to Afghanistan (     

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