Democracy and stability in Afghanistan? These are lofty goals. There are few peoples so impoverished, few countries so war torn, and few collective psyches so beaten up. To meet an Afghan is to meet someone for whom a state of war has been permanent for most of his or her life; someone who has suffered the worst of imaginable human governance by way of the Taliban; someone who endures the harshest weather in the world's most inhospitable terrain. The average Afghan is tough and proud and hardened in a Mad Max wasteland that oftentimes bears closer resemblance to the moon than any recognizable place on earth. (I found the average Afghan villager to be almost heroically kind and naturally generous; those fortunate enough to have employment may earn only a pittance, but will still insist on preparing tea and food for a guest.)
Having faced invasion, upheaval and conquest since Alexander the Great crossed the Hindu Kush, it is hard to begrudge Afghanistan its much-needed peace.
But after eight years of nation building, it is difficult to envision Afghanistan as a nation. Its borders, though drawn in stark black lines on any given map, are porous and volatile, and face incursions by Iranian operatives from the west and Pakistan-harbored fighters from the east.
And while the people of Afghanistan may technically reside within the boundaries of a Western map, there is little patriotic sentiment to be found outside of that which has been expressly fashioned and bolstered by the international community. The presidential election on August 20th will serve to measure whether the country's last traces of national will were crushed by the Soviet Union, obliterated by the Taliban, and exhausted by a global occupation with no end in sight.
Afghanistan might best be described as a collective of far-flung villages with a few small cities built for effect. While progress has been made in training an army and building a police force, the successes of Hamid Karzai's administration diminish as the geographic proximity of Kabul increases. In many ways, the political machinations of the capital are as important to the farmers of Konduz as an ordinance in New York City matters to El Paso, Texas. With no promise of security on election day, and daily threats made by the Taliban to those who might otherwise participate, Afghan villagers are asked to choose between survival or democracy. With survival always on the forefront of a villager's mind, whether it is food, shelter, heat in the winter, or water in the summer, the act of voting for a perceived nonexistent government might seem needlessly provocative.
Lou Campomenosi, a professor of political science at Tulane University, argues that the choice in many ways echoes the 2005 elections in Iraq, when al Qaida violence reached a crescendo. While conceding that Taliban intimidation is unhelpful, he submits that terrorist coercion is a doomed strategy. "Twelve million purple fingers showed that people would not be cowed into submission."
Paradoxically, as the Taliban works to undermine the Karzai government and the electoral process, it ultimately offers Karzai his greatest advantage in the election. The primitive barbarism, unbridled brutality, and medieval stupidity of the Taliban's rule is not forgotten, and but for a few small enclaves, not welcomed by the Afghan people. Karzai, as longtime public face of the Taliban opposition, is the natural beneficiary of Taliban violence. An election successful even by modest standards is a rebuke to the gangster regime of old, and proof that a sustainable state is possible and welcome.
The election's legitimacy will also depend greatly on overcoming Karzai's failures of governance, and ISAF's criminal negligence in securing and fostering infrastructure projects. The completion of the Ring Road, a two thousand mile highway system connecting the major towns and villages of Afghanistan would have alleviated the logistical nightmare of conducting this Friday's election.
Consider the electoral disasters of Broward County, Florida. Now take away roadways and the rule of law and add terrain better suited to a post-apocalyptic revelation. Group that with a fearful populace and a zealous insurgency eager for target practice, and the murky proposition of an indisputable vote becomes clear.
But assuming the best, there is little evidence that US strategy in Afghanistan will substantially change under either Karzai or his chief rival, Abdullah Abdullah. For the foreseeable future, the United States and the international community will serve as keystone of the Afghan state. Though Afghanistan's army is proving to be moderately effective when utilized, it still relies heavily on US Special Forces guidance and US infantry support, and cannot function without US air mobility. Any movement by an Afghanistan government to eject the United States or ISAF would lead to an immediate and irreversible self-annihilation of the state.
The international mission in Afghanistan is still in its infancy yet. The days ahead will demonstrate Afghanistan's resolve for peace and stability. The years ahead will demonstrate America's.
D.B. Grady is a freelance writer and novelist. He served as a paratrooper with the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force in Afghanistan from 2006 to 2007. His debut novel, Red Planet Noir, is due in bookstores this November. He can be found at http://www.dbgrady.com.