At the very end of his September 21, 2004 speech to the United Nations General Assembly, President Bush proposed a UN “Democracy Fund” to facilitate in emerging democracies the creation of “the rule of law and independent courts, a free press, political parties and trade unions [and] help set up voter precincts and polling places, and support the work of election monitors.”
On October 9 in Afghanistan, much of what the President envisions will be on the line in Afghanistan as ten million Afghan men and women (even omitting the suspected 200,000 double registrations) attempt to freely elect a president.
“Freely” is the key. The potential pitfalls are legion: attacks by al-Qaeda or Taliban, widespread illiteracy (as high as 60 percent among adults), cultural taboos that require separate arrangements for men and women voters at the 22,000 polling locations, pressures from tribal leaders and elders to conform and vote for the candidate “chosen” by those traditional authorities, the two or more weeks necessary to retrieve ballot boxes from the more remote locales and count the votes. Yet the one danger that is particularly acute has gone almost completely unreported in the U.S. media: the possibility that Afghans will not accept the process as credible because of perceived outside (U.S.) meddling.
This outcome is not generally discussed; security for the polls generally captures headlines because of the numbers. Extra battalions were deployed by Spain and Italy, boosting the non-U.S. international total to nearly 9,000, while additional army deployments brought U.S. troop strength to 16,000. In addition, some 60,000 Afghan police and soldiers will be on duty.
Probably no one in Afghanistan is unaware that the current interim president, Hamid Karzai, chosen by a traditional Afghan loya jirga to lead the country until regular elections, is Washington’s man. His stature as interim president is burnished by the ability to sprinkle U.S. and internationally-donated money and grant other favors to win support and votes. The Bush Administration has fully supported this pork-barrel approach by infusing an additional $1.6 billion into reconstruction projects in 2004.
The success of this brand of “ward politics” is jeopardized by the very visible presence of Washington’s “other man” in Kabul, U.S. ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, a.k.a. “The Viceroy” (London Times, October 4, 2004). Karzai is ferried about Afghanistan in U.S. helicopters and protected by private foreign security guards. Khalilzad and others in the U.S. government reportedly have pressed some of the other 17 candidates to end their campaigns so that Karzai has a greater chance of garnering the 51 percent of the votes needed to avoid a run-off election in November. Among inducements proffered are promises of cabinet posts in a new Karzai administration.
Ironically, if true and if Karzai wins, this ploy itself could backfire. The original plan for elections called for simultaneous or nearly simultaneous elections for president and for a new parliament. However, the complexities of a ballot for a new legislature were deemed too overwhelming within the overall timelines agreed between the UN and the interim Afghan government, so the latter will not be held until April 2005. (As it is, the presidential election has been postponed twice.) Yet parliament is supposed to be a check on the president’s power, specifically through its power to veto cabinet appointments.
Something quite similar has been occurring in Iraq, and is just as damaging to international efforts to create a viable, democratic process. Favored first was the Pentagon’s man, Ahmed Chalabi, paid for “intelligence” that was mostly fabricated and even flown back into Iraq with his private militia by the U.S. Air Force. Now it is Ayad Allawi, the interim Iraqi prime minister, whose speech before a joint session of Congress in September reportedly was crafted in part by Bush Administration officials (Washington Post, September 30, 2004).
In short, Washington seems more intent on achieving a short-range, particular outcome on the ground than in establishing a credible process that could be replicated in future elections in both Afghanistan and Iraq. The perception that the U.S. is meddling for its own advantage feeds accusations that the U.S. is out to dominate the Islamic world and undercuts the willingness of the international community to help rebuild both countries as evidenced by the significant shortfalls in donor pledges for reconstruction activities.
In this regard, Bush’s call for a “Democracy Fund” rings hollow, as a significant effort in any state rebuilding already is directed toward restoring the justice system and civil society. After the stridency of Bush’s 2002 and 2003 UN speeches, in which he attacked the UN’s credibility for not bringing Saddam Hussein to heel (another outcome) and then for failing to criminalize proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (at least to countries Washington deems “outlaws”), plus revelations about the lack of accountability for billions of dollars disbursed by the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority, this proposal seemed pro forma, expected from a U.S. leader but sure to be half-hearted and lacking credibility.
That’s the cost of employing any means to achieve an outcome.
Col. Daniel Smith, a West Point graduate and Vietnam veteran, is Senior Fellow on Military Affairs at the Friends Committee on National Legislation, a Quaker lobby in the public interest. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org