John Burns Is Answering Your Questions on Afghanistan

Posted in Afghanistan | 20-Aug-09 | Author: John Burns| Source: New York Times

John F. Burns

After more than 30 years as a Times foreign correspondent, I've grown used to looking out of the aircraft or jeep or train on arrival in unfamiliar and often inhibiting terrain, and wondering with a mixture of anticipation and anxiety how quickly, and capably, I'll get my professional bearings - and justify the editors' faith in assigning me. The boundary I'll be crossing with this new venture for "At War," our new and expanded blog on the conflicts of the post-9/11 era, is a different kind of challenge - but just as daunting, in its way, as those old forays into unknown lands.

In the first 48 hours after our Web editors invited readers to send in their questions, more than 220 of you responded, a degree of interest that is encouraging for what it suggests about the potential for us at the Times of this kind of interactive journalism. Just as much, the flow of questions, and the sophisticated commentaries woven into many of them, have been a reminder of how much many of our readers already know about the complex challenges America confronts abroad.

We've heard from Americans who've served in Afghanistan in the Peace Corps, as diplomats, and as military personnel, as well as from scholars and others with specialized expertise in the area - and, no less, from individuals with no personal ties to Afghanistan but a deeply impressive grasp of the issues involved. So for this new undertaking to work at its best, we should aim at developing this new enterprise into a conversation, one from which we can all benefit, not least myself.

Working with the editors, I've tried to find the common themes in the first wave of questions, with a view to responding to as many as possible over the next few days. The main topics of concern appear to be these: Why are our forces in Afghanistan, and can we ever leave, at least in any acceptable period of time?

Is democracy really possible there, or are we wasting our time? Is Afghanistan capable of evolving into a modern society, or will all efforts there founder on the deeply conservative forces entrenched there? Is President Hamid Karzai an ally we can depend on, or a man that the Bush Administration chose in haste to lead post-Taliban Afghanistan in December 2001, saddling the country and its Western allies with an ineffectual, corrupt and crony-ridden leadership? If we can't depend on President Karzai, is there anybody else?

But ahead of all these issues, for now, is the question of the presidential and provincial council elections that take place tomorrow, which seem like the best place to start.

This Afghan election is starting to remind me of the recent Iranian one - an incumbent who's got support, a challenger who poses a real threat, and who is promising change from the old ways Do you think there is a potential for the sort of post-election unrest we are still seeing in Iran?
-Marika Hadzipetros

To state the obvious, Marika, much will depend on whether President Karzai wins in the first round by taking more than 50 percent of the vote, as required by the constitution. And that, in turn, seems likely to hang on the success of Taliban attempts to intimidate voters in the Pashtun areas of the country that are Mr. Karzai's principal electoral base, and simultaneously the stronghold of the Taliban.

If voter turnout in these areas is much lower than in 2004, say down to 30 percent or lower - and we may not know even that with certainty for several days - Mr. Karzai could conceivably be pushed close on the first round by one of his principal challengers, most likely his former foreign minister, Abdullah Abdullah, whose mixed Tajik and Pashtun parentage gives him potential strength not only in the Tajik majority areas to the north and east of Kabul, but in the capital itself, with its heavy Tajik population.
In the worst imaginable case, a collapse in the Pashtun vote in the first round could rattle Mr. Karzai so badly that he could declare emergency rule under the constitution, annul the second round and win backing from the Afghan Parliament for an indefinite extension of his hold on power - precipitating the sort of crisis we've seen in the wake of the disputed presidential election in Iran. But there are several reasons to doubt that things could go to that extreme.

The first is that preliminary reports suggest that Taliban intimidation of the voters on Election Day, while significant, was not as bad as many had feared. The second is that Mr. Karzai entered the election with such a wide lead in most of the polling that even a disproportionately higher turnout in Tajik areas than the Pashtun heartland might not be enough to secure a second-round victory for Dr. Abdullah; one of the more comprehensive pre-election polls, conducted in May by the Washington-based International Republican Institute, an organization funded by the U.S. government to support democratization programs around the world, showed Mr. Karzai with 31 percent support, compared to 7 percent for Dr. Abdullah and 3 percent for Ashraf Ghani, the third of the principal contenders.

Lastly, there is the decisive power of the international community, and especially the United States, whose entire posture in Afghanistan would be vitiated by any attempt to meddle with the election outcome. Could anybody, especially Mr. Karzai, imagine that President Obama would tolerate a replay of the post-election shenanigans that seem to have secured Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a second term as president in Iran? If the American military sees its role in the election as one of an impartial guarantor, as I believe it does, it would not be likely to stand by and allow the election to be stolen, or annulled. But with Mr. Karzai strongly favored to win by legitimate means, it is unlikely ever to come to that.

Is it possible that voters in Afghanistan are going to be intimidated by the presence of the American Military, and therefore tend to vote for the candidate that was put in place there by the military? How would we feel if we went to vote at our local polling place and there was a military presence of an occupying country, whose candidate just happened to be running for reelection?
- Christine Stuart

Call me naïve, Christine, if you will, but I really don't believe that the American forces in Afghanistan - or any of the other foreign troop contingents in the allied coalition of more than 40 nations - will have been involved in intimidating voters. But it is clear from the number of other readers who have raised concerns about American military involvement in the election process that the shadow of past American wars, and clandestine attempts at political manipulation, have cast a long shadow.

Vietnam, in particular, seems to be on several contributors' minds. ("The Vietnam analogy holds, does it not?", a reader signing himself as Alan wrote, in one particularly acerbic comment. "The elections are a sham, the regime is corrupt, most of the population is terrorized either by the regime and its allies, or by the insurgents and their allies. In the end, Karzai will move to Orange County, Calif., and open up a liquor store").

What we do know is that the American commander, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, oversaw security arrangements for the voting that placed American troops in the outermost ring of a layered pattern around polling stations in areas judged to be most vulnerable to Taliban attack, with the intent of providing a degree of protection but one that would not be so visible or heavy as to intimidate. He and Karl W. Eikenberry, the American ambassador and former U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, concentrated their appeals ahead of the vote for as many Afghans as possible to go to the polls.

As for the suspicion that American efforts, overt or clandestine, might have been deployed in support of Hamid Karzai's re-election, American policymakers, under the Obama administration and the latter years of George W. Bush, have been increasingly frustrated with Mr. Karzai and the incompetence and corruption synonymous with his presidency. Until only a few months ago, it was clear that if there were a stronger candidate capable of winning the election, Mr. Karzai, who has been increasingly fractious in his relations with American officials, might have been cast adrift. As matters evolved, the American inclination to look for an alternative faded away, and Mr. Karzai was left to fight his own electoral battle in a field of three dozen other candidates, including several who have made a case against him on campaign platforms that have sounded very similar to the one voiced privately by American officials.

In Iraq during the presidential elections, we witnessed brave Iraqis in the hundreds of thousands who defied the terrorists and lined up to vote with the sound of suicide bombs in their ears. Will Afghans do the same?
- Alan

As Gen. David Petraeus and other American commanders have warned, not all the lessons America learned in Iraq are transferable to Afghanistan, though some important ones in the area of counter-insurgency warfare almost certainly are. But one experience in Iraq that all who have worked or fought in both countries will have in mind as Afghans go to the polls is how little impact, if any at all, the two national elections that were held in Iraq in 2005 had on the trajectory of the insurgency there.

In the December election that brought the present government of Nuri Kamal al-Maliki to power, the turnout was officially given as 80 per cent, with 12.4 million Iraqis voting. For those of us who were on the streets of Iraq's major cities at the time, experiencing the joy among ordinary Iraqis at being given the chance to choose their own government for the first time in the country's history, it was possible, for a moment, to share the hope of the Bush administration, and the U.S. military command, that the voting would mark a turning point in the war.

It didn't, of course, and the worst chapter in that war followed with the escalation of sectarian violence across the country in 2006, with casualties, among Iraqis and American troops, that began falling only after the U.S. troop surge began in early 2007. Similarly in Afghanistan, there is little reason to expect that the elections will have any measurable short-term impact on the efforts of al Qaeda and the Taliban to destabilize the Kabul government. Indeed, early reports from across wide areas of Afghanistan suggest that the insurgents have had a much greater impact on the voting than the Iraqi insurgents had in 2005. A typical Taliban statement on July 30 set as their target the disruption of the "infidel election" by attacking "enemy centers," preventing people from voting, and blocking "all major and minor roads," and they appear to have had at least some success in carrying out their threats. But considering that the Taliban threatened to chop off the fingers of anybody who voted - and even to behead them - the remarkable thing is that so many Afghans seem to have defied them, even if overall turnout among the 17 million eligible voters proves to be anemic compared with the 54 percent turnout in the last presidential election in 2004.

It's kinda a sham election isn't it? An incumbent, propped up by the "powers that be"...challenged by dozens and dozens of mostly no-name challengers. ...Why do we go thru the motions of pretending "elections" are taking place? Not just there, but in far too many places around the world...I realize the NYT can't ignore them, but the vast majority of your readers already know the outcome of this cart before the horse sham exercise -- Ken in Phoenix

You're far from alone in doubting the value of the Afghan elections for the presidency and provincial councils that are taking place on Aug. 20, Ken. Among the dozens of questions we've had about them, the overwhelming majority are deeply skeptical, with many calling them a "sham" in the context of the violence in Afghanistan, and the lack of a social, economic and political culture that can engender western-style democracy. Dr. Richard H. Fish asked how it is possible to hold a fair election in the face of violence and intimidation from the Taliban; another reader, O Coelho, concluded that "the whole thing smacks of African-style ‘democracy, ' holding elections ‘at gunpoint.'" James, another contributor, suggested that it's "foolhardy" to try and bring democracy to "a very complicated, warlord-controlled, tribal-based, backward, agrarian and poor country". And so on.

My sense of it is that even if the elections are a long way from meeting the minimal standards that would be accepted in much of the developed world, and they undoubtedly are, they are far better than having no elections at all. You only have to ask what the reaction around the world would be if the United States and its coalition allies in Afghanistan declared that it was impossible to conduct elections, and adopted some other way of choosing the country's leaders - let's say by holding another loya jirga, or grand tribal council, of the kind that confirmed Hamid Karzai as interim president until he faced his first nationwide election in 2004. The cries of "puppet!" and "stitch-up!" would be deafening. Better, surely, to hold elections that are flawed, but that offer at least a rough-and-ready sense of the popular will, than to capitulate to the Taliban's menaces and hold no elections at all.

More than 30 years ago, when I was the Times correspondent in South Africa, I learned a valuable lesson from Harry Oppenheimer, that country's gold and diamond magnate, and a man who used some of his enormous wealth to fund the above-ground opposition to apartheid.

He said his effort to ameliorate the miseries imposed by South Africa's apartheid racial laws was based on an ancient maxim he had learned from Charles de Gaulle, "Don't let the best be the enemy of the good," meaning that the pursuit of an unachievable ideal should not be allowed to frustrate the acceptance of an achievable but flawed "next-best" solution. Afghans, of course, would like the kind of elections Americans enjoy, but the ones they are being offered are surely a far, far better way of assigning power than any offered by the ruthless men of the Taliban.