The Magazine

Afghanistan Reborn

From the November 1 / November 8, 20004 issue: The epic achievement of the Bush administration--and of America.

Nov 1, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 08 • By CHARLES H. FAIRBANKS JR.
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THERE JUST WAS an election in Afghanistan. A democratic election, more or less. American, European, and U.N. observers agreed on this, although it will take two weeks to count all the votes in trackless mountain regions. It may take even longer to investigate possible election violations. Turnout was enormous, defying neo-Taliban violent attempts to prevent voting. The major controversy that arose sprang from election officials' confusion about the indelible ink used to mark the fingers of those who voted; many voters' fingers were marked with ordinary ink that washed off, permitting them to vote again (assuming they were able to produce an unpunched registration card). Anyone who has monitored elections in backward countries will know that such problems are common. Nevertheless, this prompted all 15 of President Hamid Karzai's rivals for the presidency to announce they were boycotting the election, before later backing down.

A Canadian paper, in one of the most negative reports, said "many voters in the [provincial] capital city of Faryab were coerced to vote for General Rashid Dostum, the warlord whose militia has a stronghold in northern Afghanistan." In some areas false ballots were reportedly cast for Karzai, the acting president and frontrunner, by local warlords and officials eager to curry favor with him, reflecting the same zeal that resulted in 170 percent registration in Paktia province. Knight Ridder reported that many villages were like the one in "the Shomali Plain, north of the capital Kabul, [where] male-dominated traditions, high illiteracy rates and tribal allegiances conspired to silence the voices of thousands of Afghans, especially women, who'd been eager to vote." But overall, as even a French leftist paper had to confess, "In spite of some cases of fraud, the first free presidential election took place Saturday without major incident and with massive participation." As Donald Rumsfeld said, "It's breathtaking."

Five years ago, even a half-free election would have seemed wildly improbable in Afghanistan. Of all the ancient Muslim lands, Afghanistan was, with Yemen and Oman before oil, the most medieval. The first public dropping of the veil--a real, all-concealing burka, not the flirtatious little compromise the Islamists now label hijab--took place in 1959, a century after the women of Cairo and Istanbul began to wear Paris fashions. At the end of the 1970s the Afghan Communists--the 2 percent of atheists in a very Muslim country--seized power. Resistance emerged all over, the Soviet Union invaded, and the country was engulfed in 20 years of war. The Soviet garrisons soon retreated to the major cities, and the even more primitive rural areas were left to develop in fundamentalist isolation, punctuated by Soviet forays destroying everything in their path.

Early in this extended period of violence, almost the entire trained and Westernized elite fled the country, leaving it essentially without technical experts. What little modern infrastructure existed--roads, irrigation canals, coal mines, factories, schools--was obliterated bit by bit; it was a major feat for the Taliban to restore the electricity in one Afghan city. The resistance was magnificent, but it destroyed the fragile unity of Afghanistan, splitting the country along ethnic and Muslim sectarian lines. At its best, the resistance was fueled by fundamentalism, xenophobia, and jihad. At its worst, the mujahedeen degenerated into bands of robbers plundering and tormenting the country they had saved from the Soviets.

In the mid-90s, neighboring Pakistan had had enough. Pakistani intelligence, the ISI, organized the Taliban to rein in the disorder, bring Afghanistan under ethnic Pashtun control again, and so restore Pakistan's influence. Pakistan itself was a crucial part of the Taliban and al Qaeda problem. In the late 90s, the Taliban, with Pakistani money and planning, succeeded in conquering the whole country save a few mountain patches where guerrillas of the Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance wearily fought on. The Taliban, dominated by Pashtun village mullahs without political experience or education, returned to a long tradition of symbiosis between extremist Islamic movements and medieval failing-state structures. Thus, the Taliban added ideological objections to modernity to the already far advanced destruction of modern institutions and infrastructure; it succeeded in eliminating some of the aspects of modern life that survived, such as television. These factors, piled on top of each other, year after year, made Afghanistan perhaps the worst failed state in the world. Every political scientist would have laughed at the idea that such a country could be a candidate for democratic regime change. I certainly did.