Afghanistan: democracy as publicity stunt

Saturday’s elections were more about giving a shot in the arm to Western politicians than giving control to Afghanis.

Tara McCormack

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As Afghans prepared to go to the polls in Saturday’s delayed parliamentary elections, it became clear that there are two Afghanistans today. The first is a Western fantasy; the second is the Afghan reality.

The parliamentary elections took place in the Western-constructed fantasy Afghanistan, where coalition troops apparently fight and die in the name of democracy-building. The West has sponsored and organised regular Afghani elections (including picking the candidates) as well as held public discussions in the West – with members of the political and media elites discussing concerns about corruption, how to consolidate the legitimacy of current Afghan president Hamid Karzai, and how to ensure elections in Afghanistan are free, fair and legitimate.

The record of elections in post-invasion and occupation Afghanistan has so far not been good. Last year, the presidential elections were marked by vast fraud, with the United Nations claiming that a third of the votes cast for the West’s hand-picked candidate Karzai were faked. After much handwringing among Western elites, and much public chastisement of Karzai, a decision was made to postpone the parliamentary elections until now.

In the meantime, violence in Afghanistan has rapidly increased and the security situation for ordinary Afghans has deteriorated. And it is here that the fantasy Afghanistan begins to come up against the real Afghanistan. What is the context in which these elections are being staged and to what extent do they have an impact on ordinary Afghanis?

In the run-up to the elections on Saturday there was considerable violence directed at parliamentary candidates. Most have been unable to visit their constituencies due to threats. These are not idle threats – some parliamentary candidates and assistants have been murdered.

It is often said that the Taliban is a key obstacle to democracy in Afghanistan. Certainly, the Taliban makes no pretence to support the elections. In a recent BBC programme, reporter Ian Pannell interviewed a Taliban commander in the district of Ghazni, who made it clear that the Taliban will do all that it can to prevent voting, including through direct threats to voters. It is clear that, just as for the presidential elections, Saturday’s elections involved serious problems of fraud and violence. With considerable understatement, UN envoy Staffan de Mistura told a news conference in Kabul: ‘These elections, we can say already in advance, are not going to be perfect.’

Alongside the problems of violence and fraud, these elections were held against a backdrop of extreme poverty. The vast majority of Afghanis live in tribal groups. The average life expectancy is 44 years, and only 28 per cent of the population is literate (12 per cent amongst women). What was really striking about Pannell’s BBC report was not the tribulations of the MP as he made his dangerous journey to meet his constituents, but who those constituents were.

The MP met with a tribal elder who had promised that he could ensure the MP received hundreds of votes. As Pannell pointed out, tribal elders wield considerable authority and are very important for ‘delivering’ votes. So the MP was not really visiting his constituents as we might understand it in Western democratic terms, but was visiting a leader who, presumably for money or favours, would help him win the election.

In a pre-industrial society which is still structured communally and tribally, this is perfectly rational. After all, what possible sense could it make for an illiterate man or woman, whose very survival is bound to the tribe, to vote for a government which doesn’t even exist in most of the land? Why should they not follow what has been deemed to be the best path for the community as a whole?

Here, the reality of Afghanistan is clearly revealed to have no similarity to the fantasy Afghani democracy that is discussed in the West. And it will remain this way because the West has neither the money nor the political will to enact a radical programme of industrial development and social transformation of Afghanistan, in which the establishment of liberal democratic procedures might have some meaning. Today, however, the political process in Afghanistan is paid for and managed by the West and carries on in its own separate sphere mostly apart from Afghan society. It is simply a fiction maintained for the West.

What is striking about the conflict in Afghanistan is the extent to which it has been, as has been argued on spiked, a war in search of a purpose – as has been evident in the continual debates about strategy and the overall purpose of the war. Last year, General Stanley McChrystal, then US and NATO commander in Afghanistan, stated that NATO was failing in Afghanistan due to a lack of resources, but crucially that it was in need of an entirely new strategy. In turn, President Barack Obama announced that he would not decide whether to send more troops until he had absolute clarity about what the strategy is going to be. Asked about what victory in Afghanistan would look like, the US special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, said that, ‘we’ll know it when we see it’. That was a mind-boggling comment on a campaign that has already lasted eight years, cost thousands of Afghan lives, billions of dollars, and which has been deemed by President Obama to be a war of necessity rather than choice.

The role of the elections and the political process is to give the appearance that there has been a point to this war, to broadcast to the world that the West has given Afghans back the control of their country and that the West has facilitated the development of a legitimate and coherent state. As US State Department officials have said, ‘We are looking at this as another landmark in terms of the Afghan government and institutions increasingly taking responsibility for their own processes. This is an indication of an increased sovereignty in the country.’ That the political process has no bearing upon Afghan society or the reality of Afghan lives is of little matter.

For all the handwringing and arguments about strategy, legitimacy, corruption and counterinsurgency campaigns, the reality of Afghanistan is that two thirds of the country (if not more) is controlled by the Taliban and other non-governmental groups. The government that sits in Kabul just about controls that city. In vast areas of the country the government, or any kind of government, simply does not exist. There are no services of any kind, no police, no infrastructure, nothing.

In truth, neither the West nor the Western-backed government of Karzai are really in Afghanistan. To paraphrase Jean Baudrillard, the Afghan War did not take place.

Tara McCormack is a lecturer in international politics at the University of Leicester. She is author of Critique, Security and Power: The Political Limits to Critical and Emancipatory Approaches to Security, published by Routledge. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

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