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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AFGHANISTAN AND Iraq are geographically and historically in two distinct parts of the Muslim Middle East. Scholarly works on the region with an Arab slant tend to throw Afghanistan into Central Asia and the subcontinent, while books with an axis running through Iran pull Afghanistan back into the Middle East proper. Yet the two countries are now joined at the hip, and they are so joined by America. We are running simultaneous experiments in democracy in two countries that, despite their cultural and political differences, have much in common. Morally, at least for us and the natives, the two efforts are-or ought to be-indistinguishable.

If you believe that vanquishing fanaticism and establishing democracy in Afghanistan is a thing worth fighting for-and I recently ran into dozens of British, Italian, German, Lithuanian, and even Dutch soldiers in Afghanistan who seem to believe so sincerely-then it is ethically challenging to apply a different calculus in Iraq. You may not have initially favored the war in Iraq, but it seems morally awkward to argue that the Iraqis now deserve less support than the Afghans. It is heartening to hear senior Italian and British officers attached to NATO's International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan affirm that they're planning on being there for 10 years, provided the locals want them. (And odds are the Afghans will.)

Iraq for the Europeans, if not for us, is different. The greater violence there may overwhelm all moral deliberations. Three thousand American deaths in Mesopotamia may seem a price too shocking to bear. The growing, frightening specter of suicide bombers in Afghanistan may also eventually shatter our, or more quickly the Europeans', resolve to stay put. But today, to the individual Afghans and Iraqis who desperately want more representative, humane government-as most Afghans and Iraqis clearly do, judging by their participation in their recent elections-and to the Western soldiers on patrol or helping with public--works projects, the cause can seem compellingly just.

It is striking how little pride many Americans take in what the United States has done in Afghanistan. In part, Iraq is responsible. Our sojourn in Mesopotamia has been so difficult that it has diminished our attention to what is happening farther east. Yet it is impossible to visit Afghanistan, as I did recently under the auspices of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and not see the progress wrought by the invasion and America's and NATO's continuing efforts to safeguard and rebuild the country. The last time I visited, before 9/11, when the late Tajik leader Ahmad Shah Massoud was desperately trying to hold onto an ever--shrinking slice of territory, the country and its people were physically and spiritually deconstructing. Iran's revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini once famously remarked that there was "no fun in Islam"; the Taliban's Mullah Omar and his spiritual brother, Osama bin Laden, had reduced Afghanistan to a state that even the most retrograde and brutal of Iran's militant clerics would probably have seen as hell.

In Herat and Kabul, Afghans no longer seem captive to fear. (The same cannot be said for the U.S. and NATO forces, who are, after several suicide bombing runs, beginning to evidence a bunker mentality.) Although Afghanistan remains broken, filthy, and poor, enterprise and energy are returning. An aesthetic sense is creeping back into new buildings, houses, and what is often the most neglected thing in the Muslim world, nonceremonial public space. Somebody, somewhere seems to be thinking about the garbage. Also, Afghans smile now.

Not a lot, of course. Life is still very difficult; among the Pashtuns in the southern half of the country, where the Taliban and al Qaeda can still find sympathizers and new recruits, it is often precarious. Even in the wealthiest part of the country, in the west, where the ancient and still quite Persian city of Herat again bustles as an entrepôt of local manufacture and Iranian goods, one can sense fragility. The hope, anger, and dueling ideologies and personalities openly express themselves through graffiti and posters-but in a peaceful and vibrant debate that is a very good thing. In the past, Herat province's two contending warlords and bitter rivalries imported from Kabul would have provoked strife.