Accuracy in Media

The Center for American Progress presented a program entitled “The Countdown to Afghanistan’s Election: Security, Narco-Terrorism and Prospects for Democracy” on Thursday, October 7 in Washington, D.C. Two days before Afghanistan held its presidential election, the program was well-situated to provide valuable information to those interested in the historic prospects for Afghanistan’s next government and first direct presidential election ever. Unfortunately, however, it provided surprisingly little information beyond what one could easily garner by following the major newspapers’ intermittent coverage of the country: the Taliban and various other warlords and militias still present a threat, and the opium trade and the possibility of the country’s descent into full-fledged narco-statehood are still too worrisome to discount. The upcoming presidential elections would be fraught with danger, and, at best, might represent a tiny step towards democracy. But then, anyone who has bothered to read anything on Afghanistan recently already knew that.

Paula Newberg, guest scholar at the Brookings Institution, Barnett Rubin, Director of Studies at the Center on International Cooperation, and Mark Schneider, Senior Vice President of the International Crisis Group, presented their views in a panel moderated by Gayle Smith of the Center for American Progress.

Mr. Rubin emphasized that the basis for the vast majority of economic activity throughout Afghanistan is profits from the opium trade. He stated that, “we’ve begun to recognize the problem, but we have poor policy.” He referred to several charts obtained from the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, which clearly show a rebound of opium production up to or above the level during the Taliban regime (1996-2001). Although opium eradication was perhaps the sole “success” of the Taliban government, Afghanistan has nevertheless reemerged as the world’s leading producer of opium. A 2003 U.N. report said that about 500,000 people are involved in the narcotics production and trafficking chain. A continued focus on opium crop eradication, without provisions for alternative livelihoods is an incomplete and ineffective strategy that lacks realistic provisions for a more legitimate, dependable, and broad base for Afghan economic development.

Paula Newberg presented several important questions regarding the future of Afghan government. Would citizens feel safe enough to go out and vote on October 9? Would all the candidates accept the results? Given that only the presidential elections are being held, and that the Afghan Constitution assumes a full government, how would the president govern in the absence of a parliament?

As Newberg, Rubin, and others have pointed out, Afghans and their allies have much work left to do. They must build the institutions of civil society, including an inclusive education system, vigorous media, and a culture where children are raised to anticipate a life other than as a warrior or a woman stashed away for her own “protection.” Furthermore, cautions about the underdevelopment of the Afghan economy are, if anything, undervalued. Considering the vast imbalance between the heavy influence of drug income and the relatively slight influence of international aid, there is more cause for anxiety about Afghanistan’s economic development than is generally acknowledged. Security and narco-terrorism, in particular, will shape the prospects for Afghan government.

But Newberg and Rubin may have more cause for optimism than they let on during their presentations. In this vein, Charles H. Norchi’s recent Boston Globe Op-Ed helpfully recaps historical attitudes. It says:

While Afghan enthusiasm for elections is high, this is a people that has been let down before. On the battlefields of Afghanistan, our Cold War was won. When the Soviet army retreated, an exit strategy was in place. America and the West determined the work had ended. The work was just beginning. Now, nearly 15 years later, this election is neither an exit strategy nor an end. For Afghanistan and the world, it is a new beginning.

During the period leading up to the election, about three million Afghan refugees initiated the beginning of the reformulation of their nation?they voted with their feet by returning from exile in Iran, Pakistan, and India. In itself, this signals some level of trust in the security and stability at home. Then on election day, 70-80% of 10 million registered voters turned out to vote, and thankfully, there were only several relatively minor incidents of election-related violence. Opponents of the American-backed Hamid Karzai initially claimed widespread fraud and threatened to boycott, mostly due to the failure of the back-up method of voter verification?not-so-indelible ink on the thumbs of some who had voted. Now, Afghans await the official results of their election, and Mr. Karzai maintains a solid lead in the count thus far. Most of the opposition candidates say they will accept the results, particularly if an independent commission examines the election. 

The October 9 presidential election was, indeed, just a tiny step towards a more hopeful future for Afghanistan. But it was a successful step, and one that was enabled by the massive participation of Afghans. Perhaps more than anything, the vote signaled the hunger for peace and inclusion in the determination of their futures. The tenuous, but exciting opportunity to reach previously unknown levels of stability, prosperity, and freedom will bring daily decisions between the familiar institutions of tribal and warlord power, and the legitimacy of elected authority and human dignity. On October 9, Afghans demonstrated, en masse, the willingness to endure risk in order to do so. Let us hope that they maintain such courage.

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