Amid Iraq woes, White House points to Afghanistan's progress

Elections are Saturday, but some see problems with security, legitimacy

October 07, 2004|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- President Bush points with pride to Saturday's presidential elections in Afghanistan -- the first nation invaded by U.S. forces under his leadership -- as a historic milestone in his strategy of combating terror by spreading democracy in the Muslim world.

While continuing bloodshed undermines U.S. success in Iraq, the main target of Bush's aggressive policy in the region, the administration and the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign are highlighting the 2001 war in Afghanistan as a triumph for freedom, for improved American security and for women.

Scenes of impoverished Afghans lining up to cast their ballots -- some braving gunfire -- would doubtless show the world a tableau of courage and hope.

But analysts and close observers of the country say it is too early to chalk up Afghanistan as a long-term success for America's pro-democracy policy.

They note that much of the countryside is dominated by warlords and their militias, which intimidate voters. Ousted from power, the Taliban are resurgent in some parts of the country. And an explosion of opium production provides a ready source of cash for terrorists.

Unclear, as well, is the effect on Iraq and the rest of the Arab world, where the Bush administration hopes reform and democracy will take root, relieving the hopelessness and anger that fuel terrorism and extremism directed against the United States.

"The Arab world tends not to pay too much attention to what's happening in Afghanistan," said Thomas Carothers, a specialist in democratic development at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

"I think it will have a limited impact in Iraq," he said. Some Arabs resent the administration's attempt to define a "broader Middle East" stretching from Morocco to Pakistan, believing that it will dilute Arab identity, he said.

Bush has fit the forced removal of tyrannical regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq into an overall policy that officials call a "forward strategy of freedom."

While the administration has given no sign of pursuing active "regime change" beyond those two countries, it has put reform of autocratic governments at the top of its agenda in dealing with many Arab and Muslim nations, backing campaigners for human rights and more open government.

"If the Middle East is to leave behind stagnation, tyranny, and violence for export, then freedom must flourish in every corner of the region," Condoleezza Rice, the president's national security adviser, said last spring.

As Afghanistan's elections approach, the administration has been using them as a success story and as an example of how it has enlisted support from Europe and the United Nations despite widespread opposition to the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Even if they are marred by violence, the elections will be a "model in the sense that the international community is standing behind a country" to help it "fulfill its democratic ambition," a senior administration official said this week.

Since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Bush said yesterday in Pennsylvania, "we have waged a global campaign to protect the American people and bring our enemies to account." He added, "The Taliban regime that sheltered al-Qaida is gone from power, and the people of Afghanistan will vote in free elections this very week."

The point is reinforced by Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and first lady Laura Bush, who told an audience in California this week that with the election, Afghan women "are writing an exciting new chapter in their long struggle."

Barring the need for a runoff, Afghan voters are widely expected to elect Hamid Karzai, the Western-oriented Pashtun leader who now serves as transitional president, giving him greater legitimacy.

But analysts describe the vote as merely a first step in a long road toward firmly rooting democracy in Afghanistan. They say voter intimidation, signs of duplicate registration, a failure to disarm militias and a lack of general safety and comprehensive monitoring may make it impossible to know if Saturday's vote will be free and fair.

Even the much-publicized figure of 10 million-plus registrants is called into question. The Center for Strategic and International Studies reports that in some areas, the number of registrants far exceeds the number of likely eligible voters. The Bush administration acknowledges some duplication but said a flood of returning refugees increased the voter pool.

"I expect it to be held in a state of insecurity, [amid] conditions of intimidation, inadequate logistics and many untrained poll workers," said Mark Schneider, Washington director of the independent International Crisis Group, a research organization.

No major international or private organization has sent in the large teams of monitors that in other new democracies have been relied on to give elections a stamp of legitimacy.

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