By: Beka Feathers
Last Saturday, Afghans across the country went to the polls to choose the men and women who will represent them for the next five years in the Wolesi Jirga, the lower house of the Afghan National Assembly (unless they were in the 20 percent of the country where the security situation kept polling places from opening, and the further undisclosed portion where people were simply too frightened to show up). Preliminary results will be announced later today, and a few days from now, domestic and international election monitors will offer their opinions on whether the vote was "free and fair." Nobody seems to want to ask whether the election was a success.
What does success mean? As with nearly everything else in Afghanistan, it depends on where you stand. For the individual candidates, of course, it means a seat in the new parliament. For Hamid Karzai, it means a body of people without the will or organization to provide any serious opposition to his policies. For ISAF and the international community, it largely means the ability to claim that despite fraud and violence, the Afghan people are still committed to democracy. And for the Afghan people themselves?
Every post-election report suggests that success isn't even on the radar screens of most Afghans. Their confidence in the ability of any national institution to provide responsible governance or to sustain the rule of law has fallen so low that for many, it just wasn’t worth the risk of showing up. Even an optimistic estimate says that turnout was down 43 percent from the 2005 parliamentary elections. Polling places were sparsely attended even in relatively secure areas (unless you count the people who locked themselves inside the stations so that they could vote over and over again).
It isn't just the security situation behind this electoral malaise. It's true that over a thousand polling stations never opened, and that the Taliban made good on threats to attack voting centers and election monitors. It's also true that many warlord candidates were running their own intimidation campaigns to prevent their opponents' supporters from getting to the polls. But the most serious enemy Afghan democracy faced last Saturday was doubt.
The Afghan people doubt that elections bring change. They doubt that those elected are interested in anything other than lining their own pockets. They doubt that any of their supposed allies in the international community still believe democracy can flourish in Afghanistan, no matter what their upbeat press conferences say. That's the real reason they aren't going to the polls.
On some of these points, there's not a lot that well-intentioned international observers can do from Washington, London, Kabul or anywhere else. The parliament might not improve conditions for the average Afghan, newly-elected members might do nothing but line their pockets, violence and instability will almost certainly continue to be a feature of daily life. The only aspect of this process over which internationals have complete control is whether or not we telegraph to the Afghan people and the world that we think the new parliament is a failure before it even gets off the ground. On this point, the most important lesson we can learn is to start talking out of only one side of our mouths.
It's hard to find a uniformly positive perspective anywhere these days about the central government in Kabul, and the Afghan people know that. They aren't looking for the international community to paint a false and rosy picture of a functioning democratic bureaucracy when they know that they've got a collection of corrupt and indifferent strongmen. They don't have time to waste on American domestic PR struggles. If they look to the outside at all, it's for solutions, and support for solutions, to these problems.
International advocates for Afghan democracy can do a lot to hold their own contractors and governments accountable for corruption. They can support the fledgling efforts of the parliament to assert itself against Karzai's increasingly broad claims of authority. They can treat individual members of parliament as men and women with a responsibility to uphold the will of their constituents, rather than as placeholders to be trotted out on official occasions. And most importantly, international actors can start matching words to actions - either the election was a success for big-picture democracy, or it means we should wash our hands of the whole project. ISAF forces, American taxpayers, and certainly the Afghan people can't afford to have it both ways for any longer.
The current political conversation in Afghanistan is about the ideals that underpin the system, not about the policies of individual factions. The value of democracy is itself an issue up for debate, and that campaign did not end on September 18. If reform-minded Afghans and their international partners want average Afghans to trade in their doubt, they need to do what losing parties do in a mature democracy. Instead of bemoaning the injustice of their loss, they need to start planning for the next one.
 For more information on pre-election tactics by candidates, see this excellent summary by the Afghan Research and Evaluation Unit “Afghan Election, 2010: Alternative Narratives.” http://www.areu.org.af/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=28&Itemid=33
Well summer has finally ended, and I have no choice but to accept the unfortunate reality that school is beginning yet again. On the plus side, now that I've returned to academia and a somewhat-normal routine, I'm set to resume blogging regularly (or at least less-irregularly). To kick things off, here is a response to Dan Drezner's post about how millennials understand foreign policy. Jeremy wrote a terrific response last week, and so I'm going to expand upon some of his themes and explore a few new ones.
I see two major points in this discussion:
1) We are not isolationist, instead we are globalized to an unprecedented degree.
2) We are cynical of how the world works, but that is not always a bad thing.
The most important point, contra-Drezner, is that our generation is not going to be "anti-interventionist to the point of isolationism." Instead, as Jeremy noted, this generation is truly the first "globalized generation." In terms of foreign policy, this means that we understand the inherent interconnectedness of today's world. Every individual across the globe could potentially impact our lives here, as the 9/11 hijackers proved, and as we increasingly rely on the internet for all aspects of our daily lives our vulnerability too grows. This is the bitter fruit of economic globalization and the revolutions in communications, travel, and technology that have changed the fundamentals of our existence.
Furthermore, we millennials understand that there is no going back. We cannot retreat to "Fortress America" and choose isolation; for seclusion is no longer an option. There are two reasons for this - structural and personal. Structurally, I find it hard to believe that the world will stop "shrinking" anytime soon. Communications technologies are constantly growing more powerful, and as the global economy continues to integrate it pulls the world inextricably together. We no longer manufacture everything in America that we need to survive, and the oceans of the world no longer serve as protective barriers against foreign intrusion. America is part of this global system, and millennials understand that taking our ball and going home simply no longer applies.
On the personal level, globalization, however you choose to define it, has taken root amongst our peers. Many millennials have traveled, studied, lived, and worked overseas, and not solely in Old Europe. We are fortunate to have these opportunities, made possible by the decrease in time, barriers, and, most importantly, cost of international adventure. The factors that enabled us to travel more than any previous generation are not going away, nor are the connections we made to people, places, and cultures. In other words, we millennials have a greater understanding of the globe than our predecessors, and a vested interest in places that is impossible to otherwise replicate.
The second major point concerns our relationship with governments, our own and foreign, and the international system. We are, to put it mildly, cynical. The distortions and lies of the Bush Administration regarding Iraq headline the list of grievances, but struggling through the Great Recession while watching Congress dither is only slightly less influential. Thanks to the miracle of the internet we have witnessed the prevarications of other governments and the ways in which they manipulate their own people.
This cynicism is not necessarily a bad thing. Our eyes are open to the ways of the world, and we are prepared to analyze the events of the future, not simply accept what we are given. And this doesn't mean that idealistic optimism is dead - we millennials have our fair share of dreamers, planners, and changers. But we do recognize the difficulties of achieving real, substantive, enduring changes, and come prepared.
Drezner's post is laced with pessimism for the future, and Jeremy is fueled by anger and frustration from our experiences. I don't share these views, but, like Jeremy, I am cautiously optimistic about the chances for our future. The interconnected world presents evolving threats, and it will require intellectual rigor, pragmatic flexibility, and a clear vision to meet these new challenges. I have faith that we millennials are prepared for what comes next.
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