Tag Archives: Afghan elections 2014

Everything you need to know about Afghanistan in one anecdote

For those who’ve followed my Twitter feed (@AhmadShuja), I tend to decry pundits or parachute humanitarians/journalists who write about Afghanistan in broad, general strokes. I’m particularly wary of the pervasive tactic of using one interaction or episode in their time here to explain “Afghanistan.”

Today I’ll break my own taboo and relate this short but illustrative anecdote.

The story revolves around two little girls in a Kabul neighborhood. I found them involved in a heated exchange one cold morning about a subject I couldn’t figure out. But their dialogue was fascinating and particularly telling of who they were and what they valued. I walked past them just in time to catch the following bit of exchange:

Little Girl #1: Your mom’s never been to school, she doesn’t even know her ABC’s.

Little Girl #2: YOU have been to school and know school things, but not the Qur’an.

These kids were not making Yo Mama jokes. They were in quite a serious argument, hurling insults at each other right and left. In their own little way, their quarrel is indicative of Afghan society today — the value of education alongside the value of religion, the progressive and the religious, the sources of shame and pride.

At the risk of turning this post into a don’t-abandon-Afghanistan polemic, let me also say that this is indicative of what has been gained in the last decade at the cost of billions of foreign dollars and tens of thousands of Afghan and foreign lives. Barely 5 or 6, these girls are products of the post-Taliban generation of Afghans. Education is available to them, but that they find the illiteracy of their mothers a source of shame (and therefore an insult) is telling about what they, as the next generation of Afghan women, value.

One might argue that I may have read too much into what might have just been an innocent fight between two little girls. That’s a genuine possibility, in which case I give you this:

Books on a Kabul bookstore shelf. Pictured are Mein Kampf, Khayyam, Hafiz.

The picture is from an open-air Kabul bookstore in the center of the city. Thousands of people walk past these books everyday in illiterate oblivion, others might cast a glance and carry on, a few might even purchase them. It is these purchasers who form the messy nuances and contradictions of Afghanistan.

In the bottom-center of the picture sits the Mein Kampf. To its right is a book by Afghan sufi saint Khwaja Abdullah Ansari and a copy of Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam; to its left is Hafiz; on top is a book on Nelson Mandela (and Fidel Castro).

So, next time someone makes a sweeping statement like “Afghanistan is…,” don’t believe them. It’s far more nuanced, messy and full of contradictions, like any nation of 30 million people should be. But pay attention to the little girls, their little chatters, their arguments and values. They are the future and their collective chatters are the public opinion.

Washington pundits get it wrong. Again.

Last week, Michael O’Hanlon of Brookings wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post calling for the US to “pick the winner” in the next Afghan presidential election. I wrote a critique of his piece and, as a sequel, proposed a list of five things the US should do instead of pre-determining the next Afghan president.

But now, Max Boot says Michael O’Hanlon “is absolutely right” to call for the US to pick the next Afghan president.

Boot is a senior fellow at the prestigious Council on Foreign Relations and, according to his bio, “one of the leading military historians and foreign policy analysts.” In short, a lot of people listen when he talks. Or writes.

While I generally agree with some of Boot’s ideas — like his call for more training, equipment and support for Afghan forces — I think his suggestion that the US install the next Afghan leader is wrong for two reasons: 1. it is predicated on faulty reasoning, and 2. it makes for bad, incoherent policy.

My critique of Boot is over at my UN Dispatch blog, but I hope to write a more comprehensive piece outlining my own ideas about the subject. As the election date draws nearer, the Washington debate about the subject will likely intensify.

As is usual in this town, I fear there won’t be many Afghan voices to counter the noise in the policy circles. The piece will up against those odds, but it’ll be a modest attempt hopefully to inject a degree of sanity in a debate that can sometimes be characterized by partisan slant and, honestly, skullduggery.

We’ll see.

5 things America should do instead of picking the winner – a note to O’Hanlon

This post is my second response to Michael O’Hanlon’s op-ed in the Washington Post calling for the US to pick the winner of Afghanistan’s next presidential election. My first response attempts to rebut O’Hanlon’s arguments, but this one seeks to set out alternatives the US should pursue instead of installing another dictator-president.

First off, let’s be clear: there are exceedingly important issues that the United States should expend time, treasure and effort on. These include working for the rights of women, children and minorities; managing the economic transition; tackling the crisis-level condition of the Afghan higher education; kick-starting the non-existent transitional justice process, etc.

In an attempt to remain fair and germane to O’Hanlon, this post focuses on issues relevant to the election. So, here goes…

  1. Protect, preserve and defend democracy by working to make sure the elections are fair, transparent…and logistically feasible and financially possible. This entails supporting the Independent Election Commission and the Electoral Complaints Commission, offering technical and logistical support during the elections, providing security to the voting population, etc.
  2. Offer adequate support to the next (democratically elected) president of Afghanistan so they can steer Afghanistan out of the dire straits of collapse while juggling the neighbors, the bureaucratic inefficiency, tackling corruption, managing to offer a modicum of services to the citizens, etc.
  3. Support and nurture the formation of political parties. History has shown that supporting individuals over institutions may have short-term benefits but it always has long-term costs. In this case, a robust political party system will keep the whims of Afghanistan’s president-cum-czar in check. And that’s in addition to the regular benefits of parties.
  4. Nurture the rule of law to help the next democratically elected president restore Afghans’ faith in their government and in democracy by promoting justice, equality and fairness, and eliminating arbitrary and summary justice, graft, nepotism, bribery and immunity for the powerful. These are the real issues that make life extremely difficult for Afghans; these issues also also have immeasurable social and economic costs for the country.
  5. Do minimal harm during the transition. These are fragile times, and there are more ways things could go wrong than vice versa. If things go wrong, there’s little room for repair; there’s certainly no time or energy for grand new plans. All actors are operating in this narrow strategic scope, and it’s exceedingly important to remain cautious and cognizant. Upsetting the political balance in Afghanistan by choosing winners is one way to get it wrong, so the US should avoid it at all costs.

Most of these steps are interconnected and some of them require investing resources, but they all function to consolidate and perpetuate the gains of the last decade — one of America’s key objectives and Afghans’ main desires.

Afghans deserve to make their own mistakes – a note to O’Hanlon

The Washington Post just carried an op-ed by Michael O’Hanlon calling for the US to “pick the winner” in the next Afghan presidential election. That’s right — he’s calling for the US to rig the elections, pick sides, pre-determine the outcome and strip Afghans for the democratic right to choose and the motivation to vote, which they’ve sometimes done at the cost of life and limb.

O’Hanlon doesn’t even pretend to say, even if tangentially and for the sake of political correctness, that the US should not play buzkashi with democracy but should rather protect the integrity of the election, strengthen institutions instead of individuals, nurture the rule of law instead of flouting it.

O’Hanlon is not a Washington nobody — he’s a senior fellow at the prestigious Bookings Institution and an advisor to CIA Director Gen. David Petraeus. That means he has the ear of people inside and outside the government, and his writings are not academic flights-of-fancy.

However, O’Hanlon’s idea not only makes for bad policy aesthetics but is also a dangerous option that displays a naive understanding of Afghan politics that I can only attribute to his attempt to satisfy a Washington audience.

***

For the sake of argument let’s for a second agree with O’Hanlon: America has spent blood and treasure for a decade in Afghanistan, so it should have a say in who gets the job of preserving those gains.

This argument ignores that post-ISAF success in Afghanistan depends not on installing an individual but on the transition, on the stability of the political structure so Afghanistan does not implode — which is likely given the drastically reduced amount of cash and troops and the specter of ethnic fracturing in the ANSF and broader Afghan society.

O’Hanlon is asking the US to stake the success of the withdrawal strategy on the uncertain outcome of a tactical gamble. There is no guarantee an American-installed president will: a. last in office, b. follows America’s directives after coming to power, c. manages the change well, d. handles the neighbors, e. you get the idea.

If, with 100,000 American troops and billions in aid Karzai can defy America, the next president with little troop backing and even less money will most definitely do so too — because they have to survive in Afghanistan’s state-of-nature real politik by making deals. America’s support may be most critical in picking a winner, but it’ll inevitably be less crucial in keeping in him place because the balance of power will have tilted toward local strongmen, tribal leaders and warlords, which the next president will have to inevitably embrace as an insurance against the Taliban.

***

But, for argument’s sake, let’s also grant O’Hanlon the benefit of the doubt and say the next president will be a competent individual who listens to America. Then O’Hanlon has to answer two questions: what will be the criteria for choosing the winner? And who fulfills them?

Says O’Hanlon:

But if the next Afghan president can be an even moderately serious reformer, the most likely outcome will not be pretty but will be better than defeat. [Emphasis added]

O’Hanlon doesn’t at all explain what reforms he wants to see, but he does rattle off a wish-list for the hand-picked dictator-president:

Should such a reformer prevail, the Kabul government will continue its struggle to contain the insurgency in rural locales while absorbing the occasional body blow in populated areas. But it will probably be able to hold onto major cities and transportation routes and keep the nation’s security forces intact.

Roughly two-thirds of Afghanistan’s population lives in rural areas and “population centers” outside major cities. A government that leaves them vulnerable to insurgent attacks has effectively ceded control of most of Afghanistan.

Anyway. Who does O’Hanlon think is “reform-minded” enough and can accomplish the above?

Possible candidates include Hanif Atmar, a former minister of both education and the interior who recently helped start a multi-ethnic political reform movement; economic wizard Ashraf Ghani; and the former foreign minister and presidential runner-up Abdullah Abdullah.

  • Hanif Atmar was a moderately successful interior minister but electorally, he is completely untested. But you don’to have to test him to know that he doesn’t have a popular base or strong tribal/ethnic connections. The motley group he has assembled into an ostensibly centrist party stands no chance in Afghanistan’s politics.
  • Ashraf Ghani is so unelectable that even the Democratic Party campaign whiz James Carville couldn’t change his fortunes in 2009. He’s seen as a Westernized Afghan with no political street cred. He lacks real tribal connections, something that putting on a patu and turban doesn’t change, a major reason why, according to David Sanger’s book, the US didn’t back him in 2009.
  • Abdullah Abdullah was moderately successful in the 2009 election. But after Karzai agreed to a run-off following major arm-twisting from America, Abdullah unexpectedly quit the race, making Karzai president and disappointing his supporters. His 2009 numbers were good largely in the North, indicating he lacks broad-based appeal.
Then again, in all three cases, why would legitimacy or popular appeal matter if you’re picking the winner? It’s not like we’re pretending it’s a democracy anymore.
And nobody blames O’Hanlon for the weak slate of candidates he’s proposed. Afghans themselves — from politicos to analysts — are decrying the lack of a national figure who could rise and unify the country ahead of the elections. So any candidate America chooses will likely suffer from the democratic deficit and inefficacy. And there are other side effects:

The prospect of America choosing the next winner terrifies the ethnic minorities, who suspect the US will choose an ethnic Pashtun who will continue to reach out to the Taliban, a move they oppose. (The US already picked Karzai in 2002 and 2004.) They see this as depriving them of any realistic (or fair!) chance of creating pan-national political parties or creating coalitions, taking away incentives to work within the democratic framework, leaving them little more than the stark choice of using alternative methods of interest articulation.

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O’Hanlon sells his call for picking the winner by saying there is Afghan demand for it:

Some may wish to avoid interfering in the elections of a sovereign nation, but Afghan reformers are calling out for help. When I visited Afghanistan in May, several suggested to me that the United States pick a winner so they could rally around him.

Yes, some political leaders would love for the US to pick a winner, but they want the candidate to be them — not someone “they could rally around.” If there are “reformers” eagerly clamoring for America to pick a winner, O’Hanlon neither discloses them nor offers any hints as to their identities. But we know this: no serious presidential candidate wants to be passed over, and certainly no Afghan wants to vote at the risk of life and limb in a sham election. Therefore, I don’t know where O’Hanlon found his “reformers” who can’t wait to support America’s next choice for Afghanistan’s president.

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O’Hanlon’s prescription for how to pick a winner is even more outlandish:

…a coordinated message from congressional leaders in both parties, President Obama and Mitt Romney could go a long way.

I have a hard time imagining even a first-semester freshman in American Government class argue that such unanimous consensus would be possible in an election year in the era of the Tea Party where compromise is a taboo, between-the-aisle politicians are an extinct breed and the political chasm is so wide that only the prospect of a sovereign debt default can force the parties to agree (and only barely so). And then there’s the Rohrabacher factor.

And Romney, running as the not-Obama, is doing his darndest best to distinguish himself from the incumbent (and bypass the sticky issue of ‘Obamneycare’). Expecting agreement on this issue that gives him no immediate poll advantage and casts him in the same light as Obama is far-fetched.

But O’Hanlon goes one step beyond:

U.S. diplomats, ideally backed by other foreign missions in Kabul, including such key Muslim states as Turkey, Indonesia and Tanzania…should also be willing to say, publicly if necessary, which candidates would be unacceptable as president.

Firstly, Tanizania does not have a mission in Kabul. Secondly, Indonesia’s and Tanzania’s preferences for the next Afghan president have absolutely no sway in Afghan politics unless it’s backed with resources (read money). And O’Hanlon does not explain how America will get Turkey on board. I don’t see any incentive for Turkey to squander diplomatic capital and effectively help steal an election in a Muslim country by serving as an American accomplice.

***

Whether America picks a winner or not, it has the same finite amount of leverage in the form of monetary and military support. Using those resources doesn’t guarantee a positive outcome, but not using them is a guarantee the gains will evaporate. In both scenarios, there are more ways that the plan won’t work than otherwise. Consider:

  1. America picks a president, supports him and the outcome may be positive
  2. America picks a president, supports him, and the outcome is negative
  3. America does not pick a president, still supports him, and the outcome may be positive
  4. America does not pick a president, does not support him (contrary to its interests), and the outcome is negative.

In all four cases, there’s a systemic bias against positive outcomes (things will go wrong and American support is a necessary but not sufficient condition for success). So O’Hanlon is pushing America toward a litany of sub-optimal choices while incurring the added cost of a bad policy aesthetic.

***

In short, O’Hanlon is calling for unspecified reforms by imposing nonviable candidates through impractical means in a gamble to the obvious detriment of the nascent, floundering democratic process.

Process that.

He is pushing for a terrible, terrible idea.

And finally, despite my own distaste for geopolitical analogies, I’ll mention this: The last time a superpower “chose a winner” before withdrawing from Afghanistan, the picture wasn’t pretty.

Similar chaos may spread again. Or America can allow the Afghans to make their own potential mistakes in their journey to democratic maturity.

Afghans are as invested in a positive outcome as America, and they’ve sacrificed as much, if not more, than the United States in the past decade for the gains that O’Hanlon boasts about in his article. They must have the opportunity to determine their own president.

Doing anything otherwise will tarnish America’s international image and fuel further disillusionment about democracy among Afghans.

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More:

Read the sequel to this post: 5 things America should do instead of picking the winner

Also:

Read Joshua Foust’s brilliant response to O’Hanlon: CIA Advisor Advocates Meddling in Afghanistan’s Election