Three years ago, the people of Afghanistan suffered under the rule of the Taliban–the “students”–who were subjecting them to an experiment in utopianism. I will not catalogue here the record of inhumanity of the former regime–there is hardly space–but we can at least recognize it for what it was, a totalitarian police state exploiting religion as the legitimizing agent for its excesses, a case study in millenarian ideology made manifest. In its symbols, its structures, and its practices, Taliban Afghanistan was on par with any of the great modern autocratic experiments. Their body count may not rival the extraordinary totals racked up by the Khmer Rouge, but in hostility to the human spirit the Taliban took a backseat to no one. This is the necessary context to appreciate 65-year-old grandmother Zahooba’s statement on her way to cast her ballot in the Afghan presidential election, “I am so happy, it’s like a dream. I feel that we are finally human.”
It would be a mistake to see the Taliban, or indeed any similar regimes in the developing world as being an inevitable or natural consequence of human social or political development. After all, 50 years ago Afghanistan was relatively peaceful and prosperous. A test election was held in 1952, and women first voted in 1965. But the notion that history evolves in linear and predictable stages has become so ingrained in people’s thinking about development that episodes such as the socialist and Taliban periods are seen as inevitable features of an unfolding plan. This usually unspoken premise leads to acceptance; whatever happens probably has to happen, regardless of how evil it may seem. Anyway “evil” is a subjective value judgment, and who are we to question the cultural constructs of the Afghan people? However, the Taliban interregnum was not a natural episode through which Afghanistan had to pass; it was the preventable product of a decade of neglect by the civilized world. It resulted in part from the withdrawal of the international community (in particular the United States) following the defeat of the Soviet Union and the eventual collapse of the Afghan socialist government. The fractious coalition that followed, which included members such as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a U.S. ally against the Soviets who declared jihad against us in 2002, was not given the support it needed to succeed. It became an easy target for the Taliban, a young movement given significant support by Pakistan. Pakistan too had been neglected by the West after 1989. Neglect turned to estrangement in 1998 after Pakistan tested a nuclear weapon, which evolved to total isolation in 1999 after a military coup installed General Pervez Musharraf. Pakistan was backed into a corner, and responded by reaching out to countries with common interests, such as North Korea and China. Meanwhile Osama bin Laden had established his terror base in Afghanistan working with his Taliban patrons. The U.S. policy failures and strategic myopia of the 1990s helped create the problems that we are now working vigorously to solve.
The election is a milestone on the new road to Afghan democracy, but not the first one. The election was the result of many measured steps, from the June 2002 Loya Jirga (grand council–in this case of Afghan leaders, most of whom were elected) that selected Hamid Karzai as interim president, to the eleven months of work by the constitutional commission that held local meetings for public input, to the constitutional convention that debated the draft. There has been a great deal of democratic politics–and by that, I mean compromise–leading up to this election. In addition, in early 2005, Afghans will elect members of the bicameral National Assembly, completing a process begun three months after the 9/11 attacks. It is noteworthy that the election came off without significant violence, especially after the Taliban had threatened to create nation-wide chaos. “The Taliban warned us but we are not scared,” said Rahgul, a 45-year-old woman. “We are Afghans.” Taliban spokesman Mufti Larifullah Hakimi, conceded that Saturday just wasn’t their day. “We tried our best to strike in the urban centers,” he said, “but the tight security foiled our plans.” The Australian elections held on the same day were also free of an Al Qaeda attack, though rumor has it that a terrorist operation was broken up before it could be executed. The terrorists are trying to replicate the effect of the March 11 Madrid bombings that contributed to changing the Spanish government, which does not bode well for the U.S. in the next few weeks, though hopefully our security will be effective.
The election was not only peaceful but also mostly free and fair, according to international observers. Nevertheless, this did not stop 15 of 18 candidates from threatening to boycott the results of the election for alleged irregularities. Their timing was perfect, registering their complaints on the day of the election but before the polls closed, so they could get credit for participating, but not be accused of sour grapes. But the move was probably a negotiating posture. Yunus Qanooni, the strongest challenger to Karzai, quickly backed out of the boycott, saying he would accept the verdict of a three-person panel convening to review the election process. Others soon followed. It is believed that Qanooni secured an understanding for a position in the new government. As well, he may have been trying to jump-start a united front in case Karzai did not achieve the necessary majority to forestall a runoff, but exit polls indicated Karzai won outright, so it was a good time for Qanooni to cut a deal. Democracy takes many forms.
Saturday was a great day for freedom. More than anything the Afghan election reaffirms that given the opportunity people will exercise their sovereign rights to self-rule, that they understand what the process is and what it means. It is the natural state of humanity to desire this ability to influence events, even if it is historically rare that they get the chance. Afghanistan is a poor country, emerging from three decades of civil war, foreign occupation, and extremism, with low life expectancy, less than 50-percent literacy, and no deeply rooted electoral traditions. Nevertheless, the Afghan people rejoiced in their exercise of the franchise; freedom is not something that needs to be taught. Likewise it was a bad day for the enemies of liberty, and it must be galling for them as they crouch in their caves and peer through the window slats of their safe houses to think about the sense of elation and optimism throughout their former dismal paradise. Those ingrates.