The Magazine

Devout Democracies

Self-rule in the Middle East will have a religious component, but that doesn't mean it won't work

Jan 2, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 16 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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As in Iraq, the enormous political progress made in Afghanistan-the new parliament was sworn in on December 19-is happening so fast as to generate stress. And there is this further complication: Unlike Iraq, Afghanistan is a mountainous country with few decent paved roads (which merchants and effective national armies both require), such that national politics is something of an abstraction; homegrown communism, the Soviet invasion of 1979, civil war, and in the mid--1990s the takeover by the Taliban, which married itself to the primitive, violent side of Pashtun village culture, all accentuated local and religious identities for over 30 years at the expense of the national idea.

It is too soon to tell whether this psychological fragmentation has been reversed, as it is difficult to assess the political fault lines within the new legislature, although ethnic and religious groupings-the Pashtuns, the Tajiks, the Uzbeks, and the Shiite, Mongol--looking Hazara-will certainly remain a base for political affiliation and action. Such ethnic and religious sympathies are by no means lethal to a young democracy. Indeed, without them the Afghans probably could not develop sufficient comfort and confidence to reach beyond parochial and tribal concerns to national politics. After three ugly decades, all Afghans need to have safe zones-and ethnic politics, so long as it does not paralyze the government, can actually advance democracy in this country. (Quite contrary to the accepted wisdom, this is also likely the case in Iraq.) The still seemingly widespread popularity of President Hamid Karzai, a Pashtun, among the Tajiks is a sign that ethnic identities are politically flexible, transcended often by personal charisma, loyalty, ambition, financial incentives, and national ideals. This shouldn't be all that surprising in a land where Sunni ethnic groups--Pashtuns, Tajiks, and Uzbeks-have regularly intermarried. (Again, the demographic parallel with Iraq, where Arab Shiites and Sunnis have often conjugally mixed, is hopeful.)

The new specter of the suicide bomber in Afghanistan-there have been nearly 20 since June; the energetic and hospitable Italian--led Provincial Reconstruction Team in Herat got blasted a day after I left-threatens to distance Westerners, who are indispensable to civil order and good governance, from ordinary Afghans. (The Iraqi parallel here is depressing.) The American embassy in Kabul is already a barricaded, barbed--wired, windowless, brown adobe fortress. Even the most culturally attuned and linguistically competent officers can become disconnected and misinformed in such an isolated environment.

Allied and American officials don't know who these bombers are. They think most are foreign-the general consensus is that Pakistanis or Arabs predominate-but some are probably Afghans. The virus of radical Sunni extremism has been in Afghanistan a long time, from before the Soviet invasion. It would be surprising to discover that Afghan cultural traditions, so battered by war, strife, and radical Islamic experimentation, would stand firm where other Muslim national cultures-Egyptian, Algerian, Saudi, Moroccan, Iraqi, Iranian, and Pakistani-have become to varying degrees incubators of lethal Islamic fundamentalism. The United States and its NATO partners-particularly the Dutch and Germans, who, unlike the French, have not displayed a stout resolution to fight in Afghanistan-should prepare themselves for the virus to spread among radical Sunni Afghans. As in Iraq, this is unquestionably the most fearsome phenomenon that we now confront.

In fragile societies trying to establish democracy, where communal and individual trust are integral, suicide bombings, if they come in unending waves, could, conceivably, destroy everything. In all probability, this scenario is too pessimistic. The backlash in the Iraqi Sunni community, as elsewhere in the Sunni Arab world, against the horrific slaughter of women and children has already started. It may be a spur to political compromise among the Sunni Arabs in Iraq (for fear of the holy warriors and the Shia, who may eventually let loose a pitiless, all--consuming revenge). And in Afghanistan, the cult of the suicide bomber is still in its infancy. Pashtun society, which is where such holy--warriorism will have to grow, would probably offer sufficient resistance to keep this kind of terrorism from becoming a plague.