These days, Afghanistan is held aloft by the Bush administration as the shining star of democracy’s inexorable spread. Truth be told, since the American-led war that ousted the Taliban three years ago, the signs of life coming out of Kabul and the wider country at large are encouraging, but Afghanistan is a test case for the difficulties inherent in the Bush administration’s foreign policy.
To begin with, Afghanistan was recently cited in a State Department report as being in danger of becoming a narcotics state. This is hardly indicative of the average American’s perception of a successful democracy. It is also an indication that the rule of law has not quite taken hold among Afghanis outside of Kabul. The one good thing that can be said about the Taliban is that they were notoriously intolerant of opium production, of which Afghanistan has a storied past. Much like coca and Colombia, poppy and Afghanistan go hand in hand. But the collapse of the Taliban not only removed a brutally oppressive government, it allowed the warlords that have been the traditional rulers of Afghanistan to come back into power, and the poppy fields are once again productive.
As much of a small, budding democratic government that Afghanistan has, there would be no government were it not for the tacit approval of the warlords. A democratic government is successful because of the will of the people. Ideally, the majority give the government its ability to exist, in some ways as their representatives, and in other ways as a bulwark against the sometimes misguided will of that majority. But the word “majority” is the key. It is hard to picture Afghanistan as a successful democracy as long as the functioning of the government is held mercy to the will of tribal warlords and their armies scattered throughout the nation, some benevolent, some as harsh as the Taliban regime that kept them from power, but all of whom are not representative of the will of the nation. How can they be? The warlord mentality that at this point is the real government of Afghanistan is one of abject control. The very concept that government exists for the benefit of the people and not vice versa is anathema to that control. Combine that with the soaring poverty rates in Afghanistan, and the government in Kabul is fighting a mighty uphill battle to establish a truly representative government of the people, by the people, and for the people.
Along with the difficulties presented by the warlords, the Afghan government itself seems to be making things difficult. Parliamentary elections that were originally scheduled for last June have now been postponed for the third time, until September of this year. Delaying elections is nothing short of a disastrous circumstance for a democracy. Successful democracies weather the worst of storms, feel the blows of catastrophe in devastating fashion, and still have their elections. Spain had their national referendum mere days after the Madrid train bombing. New York City was scheduled to have a mayoral primary on 9/11, the most extreme example to date of an adverse event leading into an election, and the primary was delayed, but not for long. The government of Hamid Karzai announced that the reasons for the latest delays were ones of logistics, hardly what one would consider more than just annoyingly difficult, and far from catastrophic. Understandably, those in and out of the government who stand in opposition to the policies of Hamid Karzai are screaming foul. They contend that Hamid Karzai is delaying the elections as part of a continuing strategy of consolidation. At this point, it’s hard to say whether this is sour grapes on the part of those who yearn for power in Afghanistan, or if there truly is something wrong with the direction the Karzai government is headed. One thing is for sure, however. President Bush’s shining star is in deep political trouble. As long as the fields continue to grow poppy, as long as the warlords rule, and as long as there is no popularly elected legislature, there will be no successful democracy in Afghanistan. Even more disturbing is that Afghanistan is not slipping back into this condition as much as it never really rose above it.