Afghanistan will undergo the first presidential elections in the country’s history on October 9, 2004. As if surprised by the fact that Afghans could want a voice in their country’s future, George W. Bush touted the fact that over 10 million Afghans registered to vote as “a resounding endorsement for democracy.” The real surprise is that, despite rampant anti-election violence and threats of violence, so many people were brave enough to register. This certainly indicates that Afghans are desperate for a chance to control their own lives. But, even though many will risk their lives to vote, the majority of Afghans played no part in decisionmaking regarding the schedule and structure of the elections, and will not benefit from the results. This election process was imposed by the United States to solve “Afghan problems” as defined by the United States. In reality, the problems facing Afghans are the results of decisions made in Washington in the 1980s and 1990s.
To the Bush administration and media pundits, presidential elections in Afghanistan will bring the country closer to being a “democracy,” where people decide their own fate. Business Week describes the elections as a “first test” of Bush’s claim that Afghanistan and Iraq “are on the path to democracy.” In a Washington Post opinion piece, Andrew Reynolds of the University of North Carolina similarly described the elections as a “Test for Afghan Democracy.” In this view, any failure of the process will be caused by a lack of readiness of Afghanistan and its people for “democracy,” not a failure of external players to fulfill their responsibilities to the country. What is being tested is solely the capacity of Afghans to embrace democracy. Few media outlets have dared to blame the United States for the more egregious fraud of imposing early elections on a still war-ravaged country where Northern Alliance warlords legitimized by Washington will continue to hold real power, regardless of who wins the vote. If the Afghan elections fail, Afghans will be blamed and Afghans will continue to suffer, seemingly as a result of their own actions.
Another point rarely mentioned is that elections do not equal democracy. J. Alexander Thier, a former legal adviser to Afghanistan’s Constitutional and Judicial Reform Commissions, is one of the few commentators who dares to utter the simple fact: “Elections themselves are only a small part of democracy.” In Thier’s opinion, “Effective government service, protection of individual rights, accountability – these are the true fruits of democracy. Holding elections without the rule of law can undermine democracy by sparking violence, sowing cynicism and allowing undemocratic forces to become entrenched.” Elections are merely “the end product of a successful democracy.” Regardless of who wins the elections and by what means, civil society in Afghanistan is at the moment anything but democratic. Foreign influence, particularly US influence, has ensured that insecurity, warlordism, and a severely curtailed media are entrenched features of the political landscape.
In reality the Afghan presidential elections will be a test not of “Afghan democracy,” but of Bush’s ability to impose his political order on a country. An editorial in Newsday holds that, “Historic elections in Afghanistan and Iraq are key goals of U.S. foreign policy, especially for President George W. Bush, who is campaigning on his determination that they be held on schedule.” Reynolds says the elections will be “a watershed moment, equal in importance to the post-Sept. 11 ousting of the Taliban.” Since the warlords that now run most of the country are as bad as or worse than the Taliban, the ousting of the Taliban was more a watershed for Washington than for the Afghan people. Similarly, the Afghan elections are really a benchmark for Bush’s foreign policy.
Reynolds says, “A legitimately elected administration in Kabul would not just be good for the Afghans; it would be much more likely to carry out the reforms the United States so keenly wants.” It is clear that the only outcome that would be considered “legitimate” by the US is a win by the incumbent transitional President, Hamid Karzai. While there are 18 candidates running, the US media have focused almost exclusively on Karzai, frequently dubbed “the favorite” in news reports. For the Bush administration it is imperative that their hand picked and well-trained candidate wins. Not only will the anticipated victory of Karzai cement the current order of US influence, it will signal a victory for the “war on terror” as Bush defines it. Reynolds says, “Karzai’s victory…would shine a ray of hope on an otherwise gloomy series of U.S. foreign policy misadventures.”
Women are Pawns in Election
The Bush administration constantly calls attention to the fact that 4 million of those who registered to vote in Afghanistan were women. Just as the “liberation” of Afghan women was used to justify the bombing of Afghanistan three years ago, women’s participation in US imposed election is again used to justify the US approach. While the administration deals in broad statistics to paint a rosy picture, a closer look reveals that the Afghan political environment, controlled by US-backed warlords and a US-backed president, remains extremely hostile to women. Women comprise 60% of the population but only 43% of registered voters. Additionally, sharp differences in literacy between men and women put women at a huge disadvantage. Only 10% of Afghan women can read and write. While school attendance of girls has increased to about 50% nationwide, it is too early to affect women voters. Furthermore, under Karzai’s presidency, married women were banned from attending schools in late 2003.
While much mileage has been squeezed out of the notion that the US “liberated” Afghan women, only one dollar out of every $5,000 ($112,500 out of $650 million) of US financial aid sent to Afghanistan in 2002 was actually given to women’s organizations. In 2003, according to Ritu Sharma, Executive Director of the Women’s Edge Coalition, that amount was reduced to $90,000. At the same time, women have increasingly been the targets of violence. New studies by groups like Amnesty International reveal that sexual violence has surged since the fall of the Taliban, and there has been a sharp rise in incidents of women’s self-immolation in Western Afghanistan. Amnesty International has documented an escalation in the number of girls and young women abducted and forced into marriage, with collusion from the state (those who resist are often imprisoned).
US policy has empowered extreme fundamentalists who have further extended women’s oppression in a traditionally ultra-conservative society. In a public opinion survey conducted in Afghanistan this July by the Asia Foundation, 72% of respondents said that men should advise women on their voting choices and 87% of all Afghans interviewed said women would need their husband’s permission to vote. On International Women’s Day this year, Hamid Karzai only encouraged such attitudes. He implored men to allow their wives and sisters to register to vote, assuring them, “later, you can control who she votes for, but please, let her go [to register].” Most of the candidates running against Karzai have mentioned rights for women in some form or another as part of their campaign platforms. While this is obligatory in post-Taliban Afghanistan, it is little more than lip service. Latif Pedram, a candidate who went slightly further than others by suggesting that polygamy was unfair to women, was barred from the election and investigated by the Justice Ministry for “blasphemy”.
Just like the Afghan constitution signed earlier this year, which gives equal rights to women on paper, this election will probably have little bearing on the reality of Afghan women’s lives. Denied an education and underrepresented in voter rolls, with little control over the patriarchal justice system and sexist family attitudes, women are once more simply pawns within the US-designed Afghan political structure.
Warlords: Now a Problem for Bush
A recent countrywide survey of Afghans by the International Republican Institute found that “over 60 percent cited security as their primary concern, followed by reconstruction and economic development.” According to 65% of respondents, “warlords and local commanders are the main sources of instability in the country.” While most women may need the permission of their husbands to vote, their choices will be extremely limited, since most Afghans are being intimidated by US backed warlords into voting for them. According to Brad Adams, Asia Director at Human Rights Watch, “Many voters in rural areas say the [warlord] militias have already told them how to vote, and that they’re afraid of disobeying them.” The intimidation tactics of Abdul Rashid Dostum and others are no secret.
But the wider context of the warlords’ power is rarely mentioned. As part of Bush’s “War on Terror,” the US made deals with Northern Alliance warlords in his crusade against the Taliban. Warlords were appointed to high-level government posts and allowed to regain regional power. As many factions fought one another for regional dominance, the US actively denied the expansion of the International Security Assistance Force from Kabul to the rest of the country, thereby closing a crucial window of opportunity to undermine the warlords early on. One should hardly be surprised at the current situation, a natural outcome of US policy over the last three years.
When their actions only affected the lives of ordinary Afghans, warlords were not a problem for Bush. Only now is Washington beginning to hold some of the warlords at arms length, as their presence reflects badly on the carefully staged demonstration of “democracy” via elections. Even worse, a warlord may become president, thwarting the carefully planned outcome. Yunus Qanooni of the Northern Alliance is seen as a major challenger to Karzai. If Karzai doesn’t win, Afghanistan could spiral out of US control. To preserve control, or at least validate the propaganda that Afghanistan is a victory for the US “war on terror,” the Bush administration is actively lobbying Karzai’s opponents to not run. According to the Los Angeles Times, thirteen of the 18 candidates, including Qanooni, have complained about interference from Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. Ambassador. Khalilzad has reportedly “requested” candidates to withdraw from the race, attempting to bribe them with a position in the cabinet. Senior staff members of several candidates were described as “angry over what many Afghans see as foreign interference that could undermine the shaky foundations of a democracy the U.S. promised to build.” Likely Scenarios
Post election Afghanistan will look very much as it does today, if not worse. If Karzai wins with the backing of some or all Northern Alliance factions, their leaders will be awarded high-level positions, further entrenching and legitimizing them. If Karzai wins without enough support from his opponent warlords, the losing parties may attack the central government, reverting the country to civil war. If Karzai loses, the warlords might form an alliance government, a horrible thought to contemplate considering the 1992-1996 “coalition government” of many of the same factions. In the latter two scenarios, it is not clear whether the US would intervene and re-install Karzai as President (as it has done in Iraq with Prime Minister Iyad Allawi), or allow Afghanistan to fester and implode (as it did in the early 1990s). What is certain is that none of these scenarios will lead to peace or real democracy.
Jim Ingalls and Sonali Kolhatkar are Co-Directors of the Afghan Women’s Mission, a US-based non-profit organization that works in solidarity with the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA). Jim is a staff scientist at the Spitzer Science Center, California Institute of Technology. Sonali is the host and co-producer of Uprising, a daily public affairs program on KPFK Pacifica Radio http://www.kpfk.org/. Together they have published many articles on Afghanistan and are working on their first book about US policy in Afghanistan. To read the longer version of this article, please visit www.loveandsubversion.net.