August 26, 2009

Afghanistan in Flux

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Welcome to the 2009/2010 edition of Muckraking for Pennies. I had this long piece of dramatic rhetoric (it’d put Marc Anthony in Julius Caesar to shame, believe me) planned for this occasion but I figured that that would be a bit pretentious and boring right now. Instead, let’s focus on Afghanistan.

Afghanistan is in dire straits. This is no surprise, it has been this way since the United States ran the Taliban out of town (sort of) and stayed only long enough to install a rudimentary democratic system before running off to Iraq. As the sort of neglected child of recent American interventions, Afghanistan has had dramatic ups and downs in its long struggle towards becoming a legitimate democracy. Given recent events, Afghanistan is sitting at a crossroads in its story; one way seems to lead towards an Islamic democracy, the other towards a totalitarian Islamic state.

The centerpiece to Afghanistan’s moment in the spotlight is its presidential election, which has just completed its voting phase. The main contenders in the election are incumbent president Hamid Karzai and challenger Abdullah Abdullah.

Karzai is a dramatic figure. Easily identifiable by his dress style (his billowing black cape, in particular) he was once the poster boy of successful American foreign interventions. More recently, however, he has come under fire for the how he has led Afghanistan. Under Karzai’s leadership, Afghanistan has flailed about, not enjoying much in the way of progress in governance or quality of life. Indeed, the Taliban, which had been ousted from leadership in 2002 by NATO forces, has increasingly gained prominence in the region.

Ineffective though he has been, he had enjoyed relative popularity until recently. As I said earlier, he was the poster boy of American interventions, and as such, he was a frequent and welcome guest of former President George W. Bush.

With Obama things haven’t gone so well–the new White House administration finds him, at best, to be ineffective–and with his people, things have gone worse. Karzai’s government has gained the reputation of being one of the most corrupt governments in the world.

As a result, one would expect that Karzai’s government would be ousted in the election. But, as the NY Times pointed out in June, the Afghan president is too wily to allow that to happen. Despite being wildly unpopular, he was still most likely to win the election.

When the election finally came to pass this past weekend, there were rampant accusations of corruption. Karzai’s camp declared the incumbent had received an overwhelming percentage of votes, winning the election in a landslide. Abdullah Abdullah cried foul, declaring that he believed the election and its results fradulent due to Karzai’s machinations. The first stage of counting revealed that, in actuality, Karzai had at best a slim margin in the tally thus far.

So, for now at least, there is some semblance of democracy. Yes, the government is rather corrupt, but the election results are not supporting Karzai’s boisterous claims (can’t say the same about Iran). Perhaps then, democracy is getting places in Afghanistan.

But, there’s always the Taliban.

Despite their inglorious ouster eight years ago, the Taliban have steadily worked to regain a power hold in Afghanistan. They’ ve had some success. As it stands, the United States has stated it has insufficient manpower in Afghanistan to sustain fighting against the Taliban.

The Taliban are doing their best to challenge the validity of the current Afghan government. To that end, they embarked upon a fear campaign to dissuade voters from the Afghan election. While it appears that they met with only limited success in all regions but the south (where they are particularly strong), their looming presence is of great concern and is the single largest threat to Afghan democracy and legitimacy.

Everything in the country seems to be in a sort of flux.

So what does this all mean for Afghanistan’s future?

I’m not really sure. As it stands right now, they could become either democratic or totalitarian. But, really, neither is particularly appealing. The democratic government is corrupt, the Taliban’s would be more overtly so. Between the two, one would definitely prefer the former over the latter. But, the democratic path has not got the strength it needs to overcome the religious idealism that power the Taliban. It’s corruption has weakened it’s base of support and given the Taliban more license to work with impunity.

No one could rationally want this. The best option now would be for an influx of global support into the region, helping bolster the side of democracy. Also, Karzai losing would be a big plus in terms of legitimizing the democratic process there. I do not know how likely that is, however, given Karzai’s political acumen and the corruption of the whole system. In many ways, everything hinges on the election results. Until they’re solidified, all that one can do is watch apprehensively.