Pundits around the world will be carefully scrutinizing the Afghan elections for what they say about the situation in Afghanistan. They should be paying more attention to what the elections reveal about the international community – in other words, what they reveal about us.
August 20 will mark, as is often noted, the first contested national elections in Afghanistan’s long history. But the absence of national elections in Afghanistan’s political tradition highlights that these elections exist only because the foreigners that oversee Afghanistan insist that they do. Western leaders often assert that that the process of state-building in Afghanistan will be Afghan-led according to Afghan values. History implies that national elections are not such a value, but they are nonetheless a non-negotiable element of our state-building effort.
In fact, elections have often been of questionable benefit in conflict situations, and in places such as Gaza and Iraq we have had cause to rue the results and even question the process. There is similarly considerable disquiet over the Afghan elections. With some luck, they will produce a stronger, more legitimate government, but there is great fear that fraud will de-legitimize the government, that election-day violence will broadcast insurgent strength, and that popular anger over the results will produce street protests and violence. Despite these risks, there has been precious little discussion of whether it is wise to hold the election.
We all know why this is case. We need elections – not for reasons of Afghan governance, but because of our own domestic politics and political ideology. The NATO nations that are sending soldiers to fight and die in Afghanistan believe deeply in the overriding value of democracy and the central role of elections in democratic politics. Their domestic politics and indeed the consciences of their leaders will simply not allow them to intervene in a foreign land and to commit so much blood and treasure to create a government that does not meet this minimum standard of democratic legitimacy.
Our understanding of democracy also demands that we, as a foreign force, remain neutral in this election. But we are the most powerful actor in Afghanistan and it matters to us who wins. Our every action, no matter how intentioned, has an effect on the election outcome and is seen as such, from our role in protecting the president to our decisions on the security of polling stations. Afghans see this and tend to believe that the election is rigged and that the powerful have simply pre-determined the outcome. The proverbial bull in the china shop is assumedly neutral in terms of his tastes in china, but he does a lot of damage nonetheless. The proprietor of the shop may use many choice adjectives to describe the bull, but “neutral” is unlikely to be one of them. This means that the role of the elections in legitimating the Afghan government in the eyes of its people is very questionable. But their role in legitimating the international presence in the eyes of Western publics is beyond question.
In short, we need elections in Afghanistan because of who we are, because of what we believe in. But we came to Afghanistan for a much more instrumental purpose: to rout al-Qaeda and to ensure that Afghanistan could never again serve as platform for international terrorism and regional instability. Elections are hardly necessary to achieve this goal and indeed put it at risk.
In this sense, the election is one very visible manifestation of a very fundamental tension within the international community between who we are and what we need in Afghanistan. This tension permeates the mission in Afghanistan. It seems impossible to limit or scale back the mission to its original purpose, as President Obama attempted this spring. It is inadmissible in domestic politics in the United States or Europe that we betray who we are. There is a massive web of NGOs, international organizations, and competing government agencies in NATO capitals and in Kabul that ensures that any such inattention to democratic principles will meet with a rapid and potentially embarrassing response. The mission must embrace not just its original purpose but elections, women’s rights, economic development, and a host of other laudable goals, regardless of their effect on the core mission.
The international community’s core goals in Afghanistan are achievable – indeed, they have arguably already been achieved. But the last few years seem to imply that the more expansive set of goals necessary to maintain our principles are not. If we fail at that effort, we may lose the ability or at least the will to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a terrorist state once again. In other words, if the election goes badly, we may soon have to choose between who we are and what we want. I wonder what we will choose.