Afghanistan: Hope Amid the Rubble

Peter Bergen, a Middle East scholar whom Andrew Sullivan understatedly describes as “by no means a Bush-supporter,” has a very positive take on the current situation in Afghanistan entitled “Hope Amid the Rubble” in today’s NYT. [RSS]

Based on what Americans have been seeing in the news media about Afghanistan lately, there may not be many who believed President Bush on Tuesday when he told the United Nations that the “Afghan people are on the path to democracy and freedom.” But then again, not many Americans know what Afghanistan was like before the American-led invasion. Let me offer some perspective.

This summer I visited Kandahar, the former Taliban stronghold in southern Afghanistan, for the first time since the winter of 1999. Five years ago, the Taliban and its Al Qaeda allies were at the height of their power. They had turned Afghanistan into a terrorist state, with more than a dozen training camps churning out thousands of jihadist graduates every year. The scene was very different this time around. The Kandahar airport, where I had once seen Taliban soldiers showing off their antiaircraft missiles, is now a vast American base with thousands of soldiers, as well as a 24-hour coffee shop, a North Face clothing store, a day spa and a PX the size of a Wal-Mart. Next door, what was once a base for Osama bin Laden is now an American shooting range. In downtown Kandahar, the gaudy compound of the Taliban leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, now houses United States Special Forces units.

As I toured other parts of the country, the image that I was prepared for – that of a nation wracked by competing warlords and in danger of degenerating into a Colombia-style narcostate – never materialized. Undeniably, the drug trade is a serious concern (it now compromises about a third of the country’s gross domestic product) and the slow pace of disarming the warlords is worrisome. Over the last three years, however, most of the important militia leaders, like Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum of the Uzbek community in the country’s north, have shed their battle fatigues for the business attire of the politicians they hope to become. It’s also promising that some three million refugees have returned to Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban. Kabul, the capital, is now one of the fastest-growing cities in the world, with spectacular traffic jams and booming construction sites. And urban centers around the country are experiencing similar growth.

While two out of three Afghans cited security as their most pressing concern in a poll taken this summer by the International Republican Institute, four out of five respondents also said things are better than they were two years ago. Despite dire predictions from many Westerners, the presidential election, scheduled for Oct. 9, now looks promising. Ten million Afghans have registered to vote, far more than were anticipated, and almost half of those who have signed up are women. Indeed, one of the 18 candidates for president is a woman. Even in Kandahar, more then 60 percent of the population has registered to vote, while 45 percent have registered in Uruzgan Province, the birthplace of Mullah Omar. With these kinds of numbers registering, it seems possible that turnout will be higher than the one-third of eligible voters who have participated in recent American presidential elections.

***

What we are seeing in Afghanistan is far from perfect, but it’s better than so-so. Disputes that would once have been settled with the barrel of a gun are now increasingly being dealt with politically. The remnants of the Taliban are doing what they can to disrupt the coming election, but their attacks, aimed at election officials, American forces and international aid workers, are sporadic and strategically ineffective. If the elections are a success, it will send a powerful signal to neighboring countries like Pakistan, Iran, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, none of which can claim to be representative democracies. If so, the democratic domino effect, which was one of the Bush administration’s arguments for the Iraq war, may be more realistic in Central Asia than it has proved to be in the Middle East.

Very encouraging, indeed. If there’s a place on the planet that was less likely to democratize and modernize than the Afghanistan of 2001, I’m unaware of it. To paraphrase Frank Sinatra, if democratization can succeed there, it can make it anywhere.

(Hat tip: Dan Drezner)

FILED UNDER: Middle East
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

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