A friend of mine once got an up-close look at a general election in Abkhazia. By his account, there wasn’t much in the way of suspense, as President Ardzinba was the only candidate, so you couldn’t have made much money betting on the winner. Mind you, the whole proceedings were certified free and fair by the international observers from Kabardino-Balkaria and Nagorno-Karabakh. Retrospectively, the great thing about that sort of puppet show is that, by having the sham out in the open, it provides a nice counterpoint to the Debordian Spectacle that constitutes mature democracy.
So, as the polls have closed in Afghanistan, there’s something bracingly Third World about the puppet show over there. For one thing, just about everyone cheerfully admits that there’s been fraud on a massive scale, as befits a government that’s corrupt from top to bottom. The BBC correspondents have at least been putting a brave face on things by faithfully relaying the talking point that the fraud on various sides will cancel itself out and not affect the actual result. As if to put a scud on that, we’ve just a few days ago seen that gruesome old thug Abdul Rashid Dostam resurfacing to endorse Hamid Karzai. Since Dostam has spoken, we may assume that Karzai will win by a mile in the Uzbek-speaking provinces, where the peasants know better than to cross their chieftain. We are agog to learn just what pay-off Dostam has got in return for his support.
One expects it’ll be Karzai again in any case. The man may be a dead loss, but there’s nobody else credible. Just in the final stages the foreign media have been puffing the pseudo-reformist candidate, the splendidly named Dr Abdullah Abdullah, which suggests they haven’t learned much from Iran. It’s not likely that a former sidekick of the fundamentalist warlord Ahmed Shah Massoud is any sort of genuine reformist, as opposed to a huckster who wants to score some more patronage for the Tajiks. But then, the ability to cut a dash on CNN counts for a lot.
Further evidence of the charade is that the Yanks and Brits lost faith in Karzai a long time ago, since he’s managed to be both ineffective in his formal role as president and a downright pain in the hole in his informal role as leader of a vassal state. During the Bush administration, there was some desultory talk of getting Bush’s UN ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, an American citizen of Afghan descent, and drafting him in to be president. This never got off the ground, probably because Khalilzad was none too anxious to swap New York for Kabul – and who could blame him? Then there was the Brits’ plan to send Paddy Ashdown, the former Liberal Democrat leader turned King of Bosnia, to Afghanistan as an imperial proconsul – a plan thoughtlessly vetoed by Karzai.
So it looks like they’re stuck with old Karzai for the time being. We shall see in due course if the rumblings from Washington about reducing him to a figurehead and appointing a more amenable “chief executive” amount to anything more than the previous Baldrickesque plans.
Apropos of this, there is the question that lots of commentators have been asking – namely, whether it’s possible to have a democracy in Afghanistan. Well, the current House of Warlords is a pretty poor excuse for a functioning democracy. But is it possible? Why not? I don’t believe the Afghan people are congenitally incapable of running an effective state, much as history suggests they haven’t often had one. Democracy, of course, is not just a matter of making your mark on the ballot paper, there’s also the issue of the lack of an effective civil society. But then, if civil society means lots of “civil society” NGOs funded by the Americans, the EU and the Soros Foundation… Eastern Europe is full of those guys, and the thing that strikes you is that you’ll see conferences on Roma rights going on with very few Roma in attendance, and at the end the situation of the Roma hasn’t been much advanced, but everyone has had a pleasant lunch and got their grant application packs. That’s a luxury Afghanistan can’t afford, and the fact that NGOs in the country are mostly doing humanitarian relief is probably for the best.
No, of course you can have a democracy in Afghanistan, it’s just questionable whether, given the country’s social mores and history, you can have a liberal democracy. If you’ll forgive me returning to a well-worn theme, the classic mistake liberals make is to confuse the democratic process with liberal outcomes. When democracy leads to illiberal outcomes, the liberals start screaming about “populism” and demanding that liberal outcomes be imposed from above. That’s why the bright idea of sending Paddy Pantsdown to Afghanistan – the liberal dictatorship he ran in Bosnia would fit in well with the liberal idea of bringing progressive politics to Afghanistan.
On the other hand, let’s take as an example the reactionary Shia marriage law that foreign observers have been getting so het up about. One thing that can’t be stressed enough is that this law did not emerge from Karzai’s left ear, but is a direct product of what’s a very limited form of democracy. That is, the political and religious leaders of the Hazara community had demanded the marriage law. The old communist government wouldn’t have stood for such a thing, but Karzai needs votes, and is aware that the Shia clerics are as good at delivering Hazara votes as General Dostam is at delivering Uzbek votes.
So, do you stand for democratic process or liberal outcomes? It’s not a problem if you’re a non-interventionist – you can just lend solidarity to the people who are fighting for values you identify with, if you can find such people. But it does pose a terrible dilemma for those who think it’s the job of imperial armies to go around setting up liberal democracies in every corner of the world.