Learning from Afghanistan

October 15, 2004

THE AFGHAN elections were rough and ready. Many women were intimidated one way or another, security was so iffy that campaigning before the vote was just about impossible, poll workers were barely trained, funny business went on, and the ink was delible. But several large caches of explosives were seized before they could be used to torpedo the election, the Taliban was kept at bay, and some of the angry candidates who said they would boycott the result were cajoled back into the process. Afghanistan may have been lucky in carrying out a flawed election -- or maybe the Afghans made their own luck. In any case, even before the votes have been tallied, the election has to be considered a significant achievement.

Can it happen again in Iraq, in January? Possibly, but the odds are prohibitive. The differences between the two countries -- though similar in population size -- are immense, and Iraq suffers by nearly every important comparison.

The most important ingredient in Afghanistan was a strong desire by the Afghan people to take part. The elections held open the possibility of both national and personal transformation. After years of chaos and misrule, Afghans are ready for a better way, and they flocked to the polling places.

Crucially, the sense of an Afghan nation already exists -- though building an Afghan state remains a daunting task. Of course the country has ethnic divisions, and of course it has been ruled by local warlords -- but they are so local that they don't threaten the concept of Afghanistan itself.

Iraq, on the other hand, holds three distinct groups, pitted against each other on a national stage. Kurds consider themselves Kurds, not Iraqis. Sunni and Shiite Arab self-identification is also stronger, at this point, than any national feeling. Thousands in Iraq, evidently, have not yet tired of warfare; security, naturally, is a much more immediate problem even than in Afghanistan.

The legitimacy of the vote, as well, is deeply questioned because the legitimacy of the transitional government itself is deeply questioned.

In Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai took the presidency with U.S. backing, but that decision was confirmed by a consultative council and he has done a great deal to earn some measure of respect. American forces did not invade in mass and are not an omnipresent part of life today.

This, at the least, is what Iraq must have in place for elections to be successful: a significant lessening of violence, faith among ordinary Iraqis that their votes will count, and a determination by them to take an active role in building a better country. With luck, the United States may be able to provide the first component, but as for changing public attitudes in just three months -- that will take something close to a miracle.

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