“We believe that our government is weak, stupid, overbearing, dishonest, and inefficient, and also believe it to be the best in the world and would like to offer it to others.” This insight of Professor Michael Kammen came to mind as I drove around the teeming, dusty streets of Kabul last week.
The United States has an enormous military, political and economic presence in Afghanistan, which will increase before it decreases, trying to bring to the Afghan people the kind of government against which Americans have been screaming in so-called town hall meetings recently. Many Afghanis are dying and risking their lives to achieve even a semblance of the kind of government many Americans seem to distrust at best and hate at worst.
Perhaps it is because this ancient culture is tired and wishes a halt to everyone using it as a modern-day version of the OK Corral for the U.S. Army and the Taliban.
Unlike Iraq, however, we didn’t send our Army there because we wanted to; we did so because our most recent day of infamy, 9/11, originated there. And, partly because we chose not to finish the job in 2002, we are now back to pick up where we left off seven years ago.
As a member of a small international group observing the second presidential election in this very old country’s history, these reflections are rendered not to stimulate debate about American policy in Afghanistan but to reflect on 21st century democracy and what it means through a different set of eyes and, strangely enough, to ponder whether the Afghan people, even in their desperate life-and-death struggle, might have a lesson for us.
A small army of media, non-governmental organizations, and members of the international community blanketed last week’s election focusing on the same questions that dominate U.S. elections: winners and losers; voter turnout; rumors of manipulation and fraud; and, in this case, numbers of dead and wounded. Within 48 hours, most of this army was at the airport, headed for the next war zone or arena of excitement.
The skeptics concluded that the turnout was low, especially in the hostile south and east, too many women stayed away out of fear, and as many as 50 or more were killed on election day. For the smaller group of us who saw the glass half full, however, it was an inspiring experience. Despite ancient cultural and religious traditions of misogyny, a surprising number of candidates of provincial councils were women, and women voted in appreciable numbers in the safer regions. Unlike the only previous national presidential election in 2004, this election was managed by the Afghan government and included an independent election commission. The candidates spoke to issues of great public concern and avoided attacks and acrimony much more, it must be said, than in American elections. No one called any of the candidates “socialists” or “communists.”